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Shaw Festival Review: ARCADIA

Stoppard is considered by many as one of our greatest living playwrights, an eccentric genius who loves to challenge his audiences, and Arcadia his masterwork.

By: Hermine Steinberg
Published: August 2nd, 2013 in Culture » Stage » Reviews
Andrew Bunker and Gray Powell in ‘Arcadia’Pic: David Cooper

I should first tell you that it is highly unlikely that you will be able to get a ticket to Tom Stoppard’s highly acclaimed play, Arcadia, now on stage at the Shaw’s Studio Theater. Stoppard is considered by many as one of our greatest living playwrights, an eccentric genius who loves to challenge his audiences, and Arcadia his masterwork. With credentials like this, I was excited to attend a performance. However, the truth is I’m still not sure what I think about this play.

Celia Wren of The Washington Post wrote, “If there were a speed limit on ideas, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia would have had its license permanently revoked.” And the ideas do come fast and furious in this tragic-comedy, especially in the first act. He covers topics such as the accuracy of history, order vs. .disorder, Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, iterated algorithms, the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism in England, and the dichotomy between passion and knowledge – whew! Stoppard does require the audience to stay focused and keep up with his whirlwind intellectual tour de force, so there should be a big pay off. The bottom-line is what is the audience left with at the end of the play? Did I have a deeper or more profound understanding of anything? Did I find the play entertaining? I may be the only person on the planet to believe this, or admit it, but for me the answer is not really. Perhaps I was expecting too much due to all the advance hoo-ha, but although I thought it to be interesting, there were no aha moments nor any real pulls on my heart strings. It was an intellectual exercise that 20 years after its first introduction is discussing ideas no longer earth shattering or providing any unique perspective as to how these concepts relate to our lives.

So what is the play about? Two stories are intertwined, mixing the past and present, and both are set in the conservatory of Sidley Park, a stately house in Derbyshire. In 1809 we meet Thomasina Coverly and her tutor Septimus Hodge who are engaged in a discussion about sex, mathematics, and philosophy. Thomasina is a young prodigy who is able to develop ideas that are not only beyond her years but beyond her time. Septimus, a friend of Lord Byron, is involved in a series of romantic entanglements that create havoc in the home of his aristocratic employers. In parallel with this story is a group of three academics in 1989 who are involved in doing scientific, historic, and literary research on the estate. Hannah is researching garden history, and a character referred to as the Sidley Hermit while Bernard is an arrogant literary critic who believes Lord Byron, while a guest of the house, killed a friend of the family. Valentine Coverly is a biologist studying grouse. There is a discovery of documents in the house, Hannah and Bernard interpret what they mean to their research, and a battle of competing theories ensues. Romances are pursued, mysteries revealed, and ideas are dissected. Of course, the play is much more than this but really impossible to fully explain within the confines of this review.

The Studio Theater is the perfect place for a play of this nature. It provides the intimacy needed to engage the audience on such an intense level. The stage is designed to have the audience actually walk through the French doors of the conservatory to get to their seats. You feel as if you are entering Sidley estate and invited to take a seat in the conservatory. Sue LePage has designed a set that perfectly supports the dynamics of the play.

The actors impressively take on the complex ideas and wordy dialogue for which Stoppard is so well known. Stoppard’s play demands much from his audience but also requires much from his actors who take the abstract and inject it with humanity and passion. It is a strong ensemble that works together with great precision.

Patrick McManus is the salacious literary critic, Bernard Nightingale, whose arrogance and competitive nature compromise his research and his reputation. McManus’s energy and physicality wonderfully convey the intensity and passion of his character. It is a perfect contrast to Hannah, the ethical and compassionate academic who represents the voice of reason. Diana Donnelly remarkably transforms herself from the outrageous and dim-witted Liberty Bell in Peace in Our Time to the reserved but sensitive intellectual who engages in a battle of wits with Nightingale.

However, it is in the past where we find the most intriguing character of the story. Thomasina is the heart and soul of this mystery and intellectual exploration. Kate Besworth is able to believably create a girl whose sense of curiosity about life and exceptional intellect lead her to make astounding discoveries. In a subtle yet powerful way, Besworth’s Thomasina is complex and endearing – vulnerable yet assertive, brilliant but not overbearing, both innocent and mature. It is the one character we come to really care about.

So as my high school history teacher, Mr. Reid, repeatedly asked us – What does it all mean? And perhaps more importantly, why should we care? The same questions Stoppard fundamentally asks in Arcadia. Thinking about the play a couple of days later, I find myself where I started. Was it interesting? Yes. Was it intelligent? Of course. Did the actors and production team do an impressive job with the play? Without doubt. But did I learn anything new, did it invoke any deep emotion within me, or more fundamentally, can I say I really enjoyed it? I have to admit the answer is still not really.

Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is available through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, and Barnes & Noble. For more information on Hermine and The Co-Walkers, visit www.cowalkers.com.

Related articles: Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake, Review, Hermine Steinberg, Tom Stoppard, The Cowalkers, Young Adult, Fantasy, YA, Awakening
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