Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia recently came fourth in an English Touring Theatre poll to discover the nation’s favourite play, so, fittingly, ETT have launched a tour. It’s a play I’ve wanted to see for a while, so I trekked up to Aylesbury to see it – a long journey, but worth it.
Set in the same Derbyshire manor house during two different time periods, the play is about intellectual curiosity, the march of time and the interpretation of the past. As someone with a love of the nineteenth century and who studied history at university, it was right up my street. In the early nineteenth century, a tutor is discovering that his 13-year-old charge Thomasina is a supremely talented mathematician, while in the present day an arrogant academic is convinced that Lord Byron killed another poet in a duel while staying at the house. It’s a stark warning to be careful about how we interpret historical evidence, while also acknowledging the essential humanity of our search for knowledge.
I thought the cast was uniformly excellent: Robert Cavanah was superbly conceited as Bernard Nightingale, the passionate academic, while Flora Montgomery was excellent as his sparring partner and sometime rival, Hannah. Dakota Blue Richards, who I remember being very impressed with when she played Lyra in the much-maligned Golden Compass film, strikes the right balance between youthful innocence and intelligent precocity as Thomasina.
It’s an absorbing, fascinating work, often funny, yet mostly to be appreciated by those who recognise the kind of intellectual passion that inspires most of the characters. The closing scene is the one that will stay with me, however: it’s evocative and deeply moving.