Preview: Arcadia

Matthew Roberts finds heart and humour in this take on Stoppard's celebrated play

Oliver Skan plays Bernard Nightingale, an "egotistical academic"

There’s something truly endearing about seeing an actor genuinely succumb to the role they’re playing; I can’t help but feel that Rory Grant, playing Septimus Hodge in Arcadia at the O’Reilly, might have taken this slightly too far. As I entered the rehearsal room for this preview, he strode towards me, and provided me with a list of adjectives he’d like to be described as for his first appearance in a student newspaper. I will leave them here so I can get on with my job: “Humorous, attractive, sexually alluring, witty, well-endowed, thrustily lunging, wry, candid, channelling the zeitgeist, the voice of a generation, a star of the future and a raw talent.” The fact that this was exactly the way that Stoppard’s vivacious tutor might have introduced himself made for a blurring of lines between the performative and the earnest, which I suspect the playwright himself would have rather enjoyed.

With the pleasantries out of the way, I was treated to a showing of the first two scenes of Arcadia. For those that aren’t familiar with the play, it concerns the country house of Sidley Park, in two temporally distant, but thematically proximate times – 1809 and the modern day. The 1809 scene was dominated by the precocious protégé Thomasina, portrayed by Tallulah Vaughan with just the right blend of doe-eyed naivety and cutting wit – the discussion of carnal embrace, and her relative degree of ‘innocence’ had a fraught tension to it which I can only hope will carry through in the performance.

Similarly attention grabbing was Thomasina’s mother, Lady Croom – played by Lara Marks, who channels a chillingly Bracknell-esque tone when expressing her outrage at the changes to the Gazebo in the garden. The contrast between self important mother and genius daughter is compounded by Thomasina’s tutor Septimus, whose questionable sexual exploits not only further his charge’s learning, but almost lead to a fight with Ezra Chater (Fred Wienand) – the bumbling botanist and cuckold, who “thinks he’s written a poem”, and whose literary pretensions Septimus preys on to great effect.

The farcical events of duels and landscape gardening which predominate the 1809 scenes are given new meaning in the modern scenes – egotistical academics Bernard Nightingale (Ollie Skan) and Hannah Jarvis (Imo Reeve-Tucker) fight over book sales and Byron, both equally certain that they know the truth about Sidley, and intent on getting what they want out of the house. Skan brings a slightly manic energy to Bernard, which had me in uncontrollable fits of giggles; Reeve-Tucker on the other hand brings a refreshing blast of no-nonsense honesty to a play that has an undeniable volume of nonsense in it. These pretentious dons are, of course, just as farcical as their 19th century forebears at Sidley, as great theories about Byron, Romanticism and the irrational spirit collapse into the realities of Septimus Hodge the randy tutor.

Speaking to the directors, Issy Fidderman and Surya Bowyer, the thing that really shone through was their shared devotion to the text. This O’Reilly bid was first put together in early Michaelmas, when more than 150 people auditioned for just 14 places on the cast. As a result, they’ve spent an inordinate amount of time poring over Stoppard’s script, in all its post-modern intricacy.

Stoppard has, on occasion, been accused of self-indulgence – increasingly esoteric and learned references make for longer scripts, and bored-er audiences. There are no worries of that with this production, where focus on the layers of humour (everything from quantum physics to your mum jokes), and frenetic pace of the drama are at the heart of the production. Without giving away any spoilers, an increasingly cluttered stage, and intermingled time zones lead to a crescendo full of heat, light, laughs, sorrow, and just maybe, the inevitable heat death of the universe. This is not one to be missed.


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