My friend Jon Alan Conrad and I both love Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," almost beyond the place where you can talk about it rationally. Luckily for me, Jon recently attended the revival of "Arcadia" directed by David Leveaux, and he was kind enough to share the experience, writing about it quite rationally, but capturing the longing, the intelligence, the vulnerability that attends this play. Beautiful.
By Jon Alan Conrad
I love the plays of Tom Stoppard. I love them in the same way I love the music of Mozart and Britten. In works like these, perfection of form, with all the pieces interlocking perfectly on all levels, doesn’t preclude emotional intensity – in fact, it’s the vehicle for the emotion, inseparable from it, it’s all one thing. This is true throughout Stoppard’s work (he even wrote a play, "The Real Thing," speaking up for this point of view and defending his fictional self from the charge of being all head and no heart), but it has never been more perfectly achieved than in "Arcadia." Since first seeing it, I’ve never wavered from my certainty that this is one of the great plays of our time, or any time.
That first sight was Trevor Nunn’s original production, as presented at Lincoln Center in 1995. I saw it there twice, and then as it made the rounds of the regional theaters and I was hungry to see it in varied realizations, I saw it in Boston, DC, Philadelphia, and at the University of Delaware. Several of these offered especially striking realizations of one character or another, but none quite matched Nunn’s production as a totality -- until the arrival of David Leveaux’s production, playing until June at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Inevitably it has its imperfections, but it gets about 90% of the way there, which is extraordinary.
Extraordinary for any play, but particularly for this one, which sets the bar so high. From the opening scene, we might think that Stoppard has come up with a Jane Austen-ish pastiche: a room in an English country house, its main occupants the quick-witted 13-year-old Lady Thomasina Coverley and her tutor Septimus Hodge. Immediately we encounter some of the play’s motifs: sex (the first words: "Septimus, what is carnal embrace?"), misdirection (Septimus gives her a false answer), and Latin translation (he uses the word "caro" to justify the meaning "to throw one’s arms around a side of beef"). Further themes emerge: unreliable transmission of information (the servants have been gossiping about spotting Septimus in carnal embrace with Mrs. Chater, which Thomasina half-overheard), modern mathematics (Thomasina imagines an equation as big as the universe), and landscape gardening (the landscaper Noakes is remaking the idyllic "Arcadian" gardens [themselves a replacement for the elaborate formality of the previous century] into the new Gothic "picturesque" fashion). We see Septimus effortlessly thinking rings around the indignant Mr. Chater, and being outdistanced in turn by his young genius of a pupil. And Lady Croom sweeps through, scattering witticisms intentionally and un-, like a younger Lady Bracknell. The lights fade, as we feel happily embarked on a witty period comedy of manners.
And the lights come up again on the same room in the present day, with the current Coverley family in residence and two historical researchers trying to figure out what happened there in 1809. Hannah Jarvis is in residence, working on the history of the grounds as a symbol of the evolution of Romanticism, and in bursts the excessively self-assured Bernard Nightingale with evidence (he thinks) that Lord Byron killed Chater in a duel on the lawn.
Scenes in the different eras alternate. Hands stretch out from past to present (Thomasina’s investigations into chaos theory, more than a century ahead of schedule) and from present to past (our present-day historians get passionately committed to their ideas of what happened then). Tempers flare between the scientific and literary points of view, and in a crucial speech Hannah articulates the crucial importance of striving for knowledge: "It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter." This chimes memorably with Septimus’ words of comfort to Thomasina as she mourns all the literature lost in the burning of the Alexandria library: "We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it."
This production zings into life from the start: I’ve never felt the opening scene crackle like this, the actors and audience finding the humor in every nuance, even some I didn’t know were there. Leveaux’s well-balanced direction, seemingly finding time for everything while keeping up the pace, has a great deal to do with this. But even more credit goes to Tom Riley, new to me and all in all the finest Septimus I’ve seen -- and that’s saying something as the role is a gift to a young actor and I’ve never seen it badly played (my first, Billy Crudup, remains unforgettable). Thomasina, his principal scene partner, is by contrast never really well captured in my experience, and Bel Powley is no exception, alas. Despite being almost the right age, she’s only a moderately skilled actress; and the part needs all the resources of the most accomplished child actresses one can think of -- a young Jean Simmons or Hayley Mills, a British Jodie Foster or Cynthia Nixon.
Also contributing valuably in the 1809 scenes are David Turner, a sublimely oblivious Chater; Edward James Hyland, a delightfully disgruntled butler; and Byron Jennings, a Noakes overmatched by the quick wits around him. Margaret Colin, an actress whom I’ve often enjoyed, makes an oddly ineffective Lady Croom, inexplicably doing very little with a feast of putdowns and witticisms.
If Billy Crudup has now been bettered as Septimus, he can take a blue ribbon as the finest Bernard of my experience. This is a character whose smug assurance and eagerness to show off easily lend themselves to cartoonish overplaying (Victor Garber succumbed to an extent), but Crudup takes all the elements, plays them bigger than I’ve seen before, and thereby absorbs them into a real person, understandable, exasperating, always "on," and hugely entertaining.
Also splendid in the modern scenes are Raúl Esparza (another former Septimus) as eternal postgraduate Valentine, who happily explains how eventually "We’re all going to end up at room temperature" and the quietly convincing Grace Gummer as Bernard’s starstruck fan Chloë. But the outstanding acting achievement, for my money, is Lia Williams as Hannah, the careful researcher who ultimately does uncover a bit of the past. On paper, Hannah emerges clearly and specifically, and yet none of the fine actresses I’ve seen in the role have really brought her to life. I’ve come to think that Hannah is the most specifically English of all the characters, a woman who can be abrupt, charming, fierce, amused, prickly, who gets enraged by an academic insult while smiling at being called rude names. Williams gets it all. Hurray!
In fact, hurray for the whole production, including the care taken with blending Corin Buckeridge’s music into both periods. Seeing it renews my love for this endlessly fascinating play, and my joy that I live in a world that includes it. As Valentine says in another context, "It’s the best possible time to be alive."