If there were ever a play to suit an Oxford audience, this would be it. Stoppard’s content, style and comedy all fit our intellect and quirky, if not extremely arrogant, charm. Be warned however that this viewing demands a great deal of concentration and that subject matter is esoteric to say the least. Ranging from Fermat’s last theorem to Determinism and the laws of physics to the poetry of Lord Byron, sprinkled steadily with a history and criticism of English landscape gardening; this play can often feel more like an intelligence test than light entertainment. But, note well that these issues are the faults and fancies of the script and not its execution which was, for the most part, superb.
Set in Sidley Park, an established country house, it opens in 1809 with Thomasina, a precocious thirteen year old mathematical prodigy, asking her tutor, Septimus Hodge, to explain the phrase “carnal embrace”. So begins discussion of yet another dominant topic of this piece – love, or the physical act of it at least. Accusations of adultery are flung about the manor and resolved in the best early nineteenth century style of men challenging each other to a duel. While Rosanna Forte as Lady Croom is excellent comic relief, Alice Gray’s Thomasina balances wonderfully presumptuous genius with naïve teen while Jonathan Griffiths certainly carries the self-importance and vexing wit demanded of a Cambridge supervisor although his emotions often lack sincerity.
The other half of the play is set in modern day when academics gather at Sidley; Hannah Jarvis to chart the gardens as a romantic motif, Valentine Coverly to calculate and graph the estate’s grouse population and Bernard Nightingale to discover whether Lord Byron were ever a murderous resident. Adam Gethin-Jones is very amusing as Nightingale, the fame-driven old fashioned English don, especially in his tirade against the entire field of science, although his toff-like accent is sometimes too preposterous. While Richard Grumitt as Valentine is perfect in his role as a softly spoken but highly sceptical Oxford post-grad recluse.
While there were first night jitters, actors were frequently stepping on or cutting in each other’s lines; all are admirable for tackling Stoppard’s dialogue in the first place and pulling it off as one could hear by the constant tittering of the audience.
Ultimately this play examines what the pursuit of knowledge really is; once again I’ll stress – only at Oxford, but isn’t that wonderful?