by Tom Stoppard
UNB Theatre / English 3170
It's generally agreed -- certainly by me -- that Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is one of the most brilliant, effective, and polished plays of the last quarter century, at least. There are a great many scripts I don't know, and I'm sure many of them are wonderful -- but I will be truly astonished when I find one I like more than this endlessly engaging, and overwhelmingly challenging, conflation of sheer bravura dramatic skill and subtle intellectual and emotional structure. That Len Falkenstein summoned up the chutzpah to put it on for us in Fredericton is an act for which we should be profoundly grateful, and if the production falls short of the script's potential, we should still thank him, and the remarkable group he's assembled to pull the show together, for what we have.
What we have is a chance to watch a fireworks display, or perhaps a three-ring circus, of wit and ideas and subtle, serious emotion. If it all comes too fast for us, as Falkenstein concedes it might in his director's note, it's still a joy to watch.
In one ring we find the denizens of a Derbyshire country estate, Sidley Park, in 1809. In the center of it all is the juggler: Septimus Hodge (played with extraordinary confidence and clarity by by Nicholas Cole, who was a fine Feste in last year's Twelfth Night, and who here displays a nuanced control of pace and timing along with a crisp diction that often holds whole scenes together). Hodge is the tutor of the unrecognized child genius, Thomasina Coverly, one of Stoppard's most memorable creations (in the role, Kim Martin is convincingly confident and brilliant, if not consistently quite young enough), and the dialogue between them engages us instantly, at a level of attention that the script is going to demand for three hours. Her first question to her tutor, "What is carnal embrace?" introduces one of the central themes of the play and also touches the match to what seems a limitless display of verbal pyrotechnics ("the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef," Septimus explains, translating from the Latin).
Hodge has been discovered, it turns out, in such embrace with the wife of a visiting poetaster, one Ezra Chater (Greg Shanks, who does impotent anger and impossible gullibility with enthusiasm, as Hodge outflanks him with flattery and literary sophistication). While all this is going on, Sidley Park is being re-landscaped, from a classic English style to the "modern" romantic and picturesque semi-wilderness, complete with fake hermitage, over the violent and extraordinarily articulate objections of Lady Croom (Sherrene Conrad, physically perfect, and with all the right Julia Child-style physical mannerisms of not-quite-obliging noblesse, but who too often lost the texture of her lines in the speed of her delivery and let the audience miss the impact of zingers like the Oscar Wildean "Do not dabble in paradox, Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit," or the purely Stoppardian rant: "Where there is the familiar pastoral refinement of an Englishman's garden, here is an eruption of gloomy forest and towering crag, of ruins where there was never a house, of water dashing against rocks where there was neither spring nor a stone I could not throw the length of a cricket pitch"). The three strands, of course, become inextricably tangled, and within a few minutes no one (except perhaps Thomasina) has a clue what anyone else is talking about.
In the second ring, we discover as the scene shifts to the present day, are the denizens of the same country house now. They include the descendants of the Coverlys -- three siblings: Chloë (wonderfully bright, practical and responsive, not to mention sexy, as played by Sue Richardson); Valentine, a graduate student in mathematics, who, we discover, can actually understand and appreciate the genius of his ancestor's discovery of fractals, chaos theory, and entropy (played with wonderful upper-class charm by Matt James); and the silent, disconcerting Gus (Nancy Roberge-Renaud, who doubles effectively as the 1809 butler, Jellaby; she and James were Olivia and Sebastian in Twelfth Night). Visiting is Hannah Jarvis, a researcher on gardens and country homes who is studying the establishment of the hermitage Lady Croom is so opposed to (Ginny Steeves plays Jarvis as the absolutely typical horsey English countrywoman, with a touch of the scholar -- her ostentatious placing of her spectacles on her nose for reading is perfect). Into this bumbles Bernard Nightingale, an ambitious researcher from the English department of the not-very-prestigious Sussex University, who thinks, we learn, that his career is about to be made by his "discovery" that Lord Byron visited Sidley Park in 1809 and killed the hapless poet Ezra Chater in a duel. Simon Peter Duvall has all the wonderfully eager and expostulatory mannerisms of this ambitious puppydog of an academic down pat, so it was something of a disappointment that many of his best lines were lost on opening night in the speed and self-absorption of his characterization. It's not just a matter of missing a laugh to lose a line like his response to Hannah's question about whether an English don's job isn't to teach ("Good God, no, let the brats sort it out for themselves"); it's important to our engagement in the plot -- and these characters -- to get every nuance of his baroque argument for Byron's shooting of Chater.
The third ring is occupied not by characters, but by ideas. Everything is tied together around Thomasina's brilliant speculations on the nature of chaos, the inevitability of decline (the second law of thermodynamics, which she here discovers fifty years before anybody else heard of it, makes it clear that in the long run all heat dissipates, all motion stops, and as Valentine explains, "It'll take a while but we're all going to end up at room temperature"), and the nature of love (is "sexual congress," she asks Septimus, "the same as love?" "Oh, no," he responds, "it is much nicer than that.") and the disputes among Valentine, Hannah, and Bernard about what constitutes truth and knowledge and method. Ironies abound, and if you miss some you'll probably catch others -- for instance, that Thomasina is to die in her upstairs bedroom, in a fire lit with a flame provided by her tutor to light her to bed, that Lady Croom fails to prevent the construction of the hermitage in which Septimus is to live out his days, that Hannah discovers through the silent Gus the "conclusive evidence" that Ezra Chater wasn't killed at all. As the two time frames slip together into the same room in the last few scenes, with Valentine and Septimus simultaneously looking at Thomasina's diagrams, or Thomasina, now on the verge of seventeen (and the death which, earlier, she has said "phooey" to), seductively getting Septimus up to show her how to waltz while, across the room, Hannah accepts the devotion of Gus in a similar waltz, all the ideas, and all the characters, somehow come together and we see that the three rings are actually one, that entropy doesn't always triumph, that in the short run, at least, there can be order among the most disparate things.
To take all this on is an act of real bravery. To put it on with undergraduate actors in an inhospitable space like Memorial Hall smacks of hubris. On the whole, however, it is so much worth doing that to pick faults seems ungrateful. The set is wonderful, and if it wasn't always as solid as we might hope (slammed doors approximated earthquakes: surely Sidley Hall must be more solidly constructed); the lighting is well-nigh perfect. The music -- original music, composed and played by Young Lee, who also plays the hapless garden designer, Noakes -- is serviceable if at times a little obtrusive. I'm not sure I think the opening tableau, where the exterior view out the Sidley Park garden windows is set up for us as a kind of gesture -- as though to say this, too, is artificial -- works all that well. And I'm not sure about the doubling of actors in two roles. In the original production, Gus Coverly and his distant ancestor Augustus Coverly were played by the same actor, which makes all kinds of sense. Here, however, Gus doubles as Jellaby the butler, and it's not clear to me why, in dramatic terms. Similarly, Ezra Chater returns as Augustus Coverly, and though Greg Shanks does a creditable job of distinguishing the two, the choice seems odd. And overall, almost everybody could have projected their subtle, brilliant language further out into the house.
But this is nitpicking. All the actors take on Stoppard's challenge -- that everybody, always, has something to think about, a plan or a response, especially when they're just observing. I don't remember a production in Memorial Hall where so many actors were so thoroughly absorbed into their characters and into the conversations they were engaged in. And when they do speak, that language, even when we lose a substantial proportion of it, is the sort of thing that, like the language of a Congreve or a Wilde, sends you out into the world thinking maybe, once in a while, I could be that clever, that quick, that articulate. The visual impact of those people moving assuredly about their business -- this is also one of the best-blocked shows I can remember seeing -- makes you think maybe you could move like that, the way you did when you came out of the theatre after watching Astaire dance or Fairbanks swashbuckle.
And all of it made me think that maybe Mem Hall isn't irretrievable: the raised stage seemed entirely appropriate to the level of the dialogue and the ideas. Sit down front, though: you don't want to miss a word.