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Arcadia: A scintillating Tom Stoppard play

Arcadia is the sweet zone for a company of actors trained in the works of Bernard Shaw.

David Cooper

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Tom Stoppard
Directed by
Eda Holmes
Gray Powell and Kate Besworth
the Royal Alexandra Theatre

If you missed all 30 sold-out performances of Arcadia at the Shaw Festival in 2013, now is your chance to catch up with the production at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.

Tom Stoppard's chatty and charming 1993 play about love, literature and the second law of thermodynamics takes place in scenes set two centuries apart, but in the same room of an English country house called Sidley Park.

Back in 1809, Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) tries to tutor 13-year-old prodigy Thomasina Coverly (Kate Besworth) in math and Latin. But their studies are frequently interrupted due to intrusions of interpersonal turmoil – the first being when a minor poet named Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker) enters to challenge Septimus to a duel.

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Meanwhile, in the present day, historian Bernard Nightingale (Patrick McManus) pays a visit on a hunt for primary documents; he has a theory that major poet Lord Byron fought a duel with Chater at Sidley Park in 1809.

With the help and occasional hindrance of fellow historian Hannah Jarvis (Diana Donnelly) and mathematician Valentine Coverly (Martin Happer), Nightingale ties to prove his hypothesis – while the audience gets to watch what really happened in the past play out alongside them.

Arcadia is a layered play about how knowledge is discovered and lost and rediscovered – and how historical conditions often trump individual genius.

Thomasina, who lives in a world unprepared both technologically and sociologically to receive her mathematical discoveries, is stuck knowing too much too soon. By contrast, Bernard finds out too little too late about what happened at Sidley Park two centuries ago.

There's sex in Stoppard's play, too, among all the talk about Romantics and rationality, English garden history and chaos theory. But Arcadia is the type of play where the fighting and the fornicating happen off-stage, while all the intellectual fireworks play out in full view.

This is the sweet zone for a company of actors trained in the works of Bernard Shaw – and the excellent performances in this ensemble include Powell's understated Septimus, Nicole Underhay's sizzling Lady Croom and Donnelly's restrained Hannah.

McManus can be a little over-the-top unlikeable in the present, while Bunker is similarly over-the-top in the past. They both wear purple in Sue LePage's costuming, a suggestion that the comic jesters have moved from the periphery to the centre of the action over time.

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According to the second law of thermodynamics, at least as explained by Stoppard through his characters, a cup of coffee left out on the table will only get cooler, not warmer – and, indeed, the entire universe is a cup of java on its ways towards room temperature. (As Thomasina suggests, then, "We must hurry if we want to dance.")

I missed Arcadia at the Shaw Festival two seasons ago, so I can't personally attest as to whether director Eda Holmes's production follows or upends this natural tendency towards entropy. Based on the documents that survive from the year 2013, however, I would hypothesize that this Stoppard seemed hotter when its individual atoms were bouncing around in the contained space of a 200-seat Studio Theatre. Undoubtedly, LePage's simple set must have been a better fit there; it looks dinky here in the 1,497-seat Royal Alex.

While the performances may not be perfectly calibrated for a bigger space yet, enough heat has transferred to Toronto, however, to still recommend it – as a straightforward, but scintillating production of a play many consider to be Stoppard's best.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More


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