Room temperature: STC’s Arcadia

This is a revised version of a piece written for artsHub.

VALENTINE: Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What's happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but we're all going to end up at room temperature.

Known for his wit and wordplay as much as his intellectual rigour (and occasional density), Tom Stoppard’s plays are a marriage of big ideas, drama, and the occasional gimmick, but they never fail to dazzle in one way or another. No matter how dense or impenetrable the science or intellectual debate behind his work is, you generally leave one of his plays “wondering whether you have just been educated or entertained, in the end allowing for the likelihood of both,” as William W. Demastes wrote. Arcadia, written in 1993, is without a doubt Stoppard’s most perfectly constructed play – on a technical level as much as a narrative one – and has led to it, not undeservingly, labelled “the greatest play of our age.” Described by Stoppard himself as “all sex and love and romance and jokes,” Arcadia is at once fiercely intellectual (in typical Stoppard fashion), but it also has a strong emotional counterweight, and manages to combine both of these – through the constant juxtaposition of two time periods, two-hundred-odd years apart – with flair, wit, lightness and, ultimately, poignancy. Presented here by Sydney Theatre Company, Richard Cottrell’s Arcadia certainly looks handsome, but like Mr Noakes’ improved Newcomen steam engine, it doesn’t quite reflect the sum of the energy and care that has gone into it, and “repays eleven pence in the shilling at most.”

Stoppard’s play revolves around a singular theatrical conceit – the action unfolds in the same room of the same house, in two periods separated by two-hundred-years. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set looks stately – based as it is on Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – but it is a little too squat, too solid – too permanent – for the deftness and inherent light-ness of Stoppard’s play. Julie Lynch’s period costumes might seem to invigorate a period we usually think of as being rather formal and restrained (think Jane Austen’s Regency England c. 1800) but they come across here as garish and too loud for the intellectual debates that Stoppard is de/constructing; her contemporary costumes are subdued and measured, although Bernard’s suit is, appropriately, the loudest thing in the room. Damien Cooper’s lighting suits the tone and mood of the play, of the design, and doesn’t intrude, while Steve Francis’ sound design is perhaps a little too quiet; the crows and gunshots – which should shatter the arcadian bliss then as now – sound more like distant firecrackers at a neighbourhood birthday party.
Grounded within the early nineteenth century, Arcadia pits Romanticism against Classicism, chaos against order, randomness against precision, feeling against thinking. But as is always the case with Stoppard, it is more than simply a dichotomy: it is about the entropic ‘noise’ that disrupts the melodic simplicity of life and makes it difficult to pick out the tune, makes it hard to see the wood for the trees so to speak. This not only has ramification for Bernard, Hannah, Chloë, and Valentine in the present-day, but for Thomasina, Septimus, Lord and Lady Chater, Lady Croom, Captain Bryce in 1809. It is this ‘noise’ – the disruption to clarity – which Stoppard thrives upon in Arcadia, and which makes the play so enjoyable: seeing people come close to each other, to the truth, but ultimately passing, just missing each other, like ships in the night due to lack of information, stubbornness, arrogance, lust, shyness. And while there are elements of romantic comedy in here – or, to be more specific, comic elements borne of misplaced affections and romantic (and indeed Romantic) ideals – there isn’t the requisite attraction or chemistry, the heat, in the production to make it truly scintillating.
Cottrell’s key cast make handsome work of Stoppard’s denser passages, but the density and weight of some speeches, coupled with a tendency to speed through key pieces of information, prevent the clarity from fully coming across. Georgia Flood’s Thomasina is suitably naïve and precocious but occasionally veers towards brattiness, though she never outstays her welcome. Ryan Corr – as her tutor Septimus – is charming and witty, cleverly ducking metaphorical bullets with his honeyed tongue, and brings Stoppard’s barbs to their pointed marks. There’s a lightness and a spark to Andrea Demetriades’s Hannah, an author and researcher in the present day, and she fairly walks all over Josh McConville’s arrogant-and-far-too-smug Bernard Nightingale; if anything, McConville’s Nightingale does not sing sweetly enough, but rather gets caught up in the academic’s arrogant self-importance, much to the detriment of the text. Bernard – while necessarily smug – should be somewhat endearingly so, in much the same way that Sherlock Holmes is: we love his intellectual brilliance at the same time as not-really-hating his manner and self-surety. Michael Sheasby makes light work of Valentine’s speeches explaining chaos theory, noise, entropy, and the shortcomings of mathematical expression in the 1800s, and is more Hannah’s equal than Bernard is. The rest of Cottrell’s cast acquit themselves in their two-and-a-half dimensional characters, but it all seems a little too blustery or heavy-handed, a little too insubstantial for the play’s setting, its language, arguments, and eventual outcome.
And this is the thing with Cottrell’s Arcadia – it’s not a bad production by any estimation; it is quite handsome in many respects, and it certainly hits all the right notes in the right order. It also makes an admirable amount of light off the ‘heavy’ intellectual debate – about mathematics, chaos theory, entropy, fractals, Byron, dahlias, and the significance contained within a spoonful of jam in a rice-pudding – but it lacks the heart, the lightness – the fizz; the heat, the sexual attraction (then as now) – that will keep everything bubbling along, and make this production truly waltz. By the end of Act Two, the weight of the intellectual argument becomes a little too noticeable, and the cast seem to be feeling it too.

Arcadia is a phenomenally intellectual play (second, perhaps, only to Hapgood among Stoppard’s oeuvre) – in many ways, it is the theatrical equivalent of an iterated algorithm, whereby each new discovery becomes the starting point for the next one in turn – but, as in many of Stoppard’s works, the weight lies in the wordplay and the wordiness of the script, while the lightness should come through the playing, the way the cast make it look effortless, look more natural than breathing. For all the hits and points Cottrell and his cast and crew score in period detail and making sense of the entropic ‘noise,’ I don’t think this production is quite there yet. To quote Valentine late in Act Two, the heat has gone cold – it has “[ended] up at room temperature.”

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