Arcadia at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
It’s not often I’m flummoxed for what to write, but seeing Arcadia at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre has kind of stumped me. The Tom Stoppard play is widely regarded as a modern masterpiece, and I enjoyed it (more so in the second half when I’d finally sort-of worked out what was going on) but it’s one of those plays where you really need to have a flick through your Lett’s notes or spend 30 minutes reading the synopsis before you go. I often like to go to plays without a clue to what they’re about, because I go in with no preconceptions at all and it makes for a more honest review.
BUT BUT butty BUT, this is one where I really should have swotted up beforehand, because Tom Stoppard is clearly incredibly clever. And, um, I have clearly wasted three years of my life studying for an English Literature degree because the Muddy brain was stretched to breaking point watching Arcadia, and I can still only get as far as telling you the basic plot!
To give you the bare bones if you don’t already know it, the play is set in Sidley Park, an English country house in Derbyshire and takes place in both 1809/1812 and the present day (1993 in the original production). Two modern scholars are researching aspects of history surrounding the house – the first is researching the hermit who once lived in the grounds, the second trying to investigate an mysterious chapter in Byron’s life. Meanwhile in the past, around the same central table, Thomasina, a precocious mathematical talent studies with her tutor Septimus, a friend of Byron’s who has stayed at the house but is unseen. The play concerns itself with present and past, certainties and uncertainties, clever and thick (for yes, I had a cameo rocking quietly in my seat).
I love the concept of the past being relived again in the present, the symmetry and order to modern life that’s informed by the history of a place or person, and that played through strongly in the second half of the play, but this is definitely an intellectual play with many layers beyond my frazzled brain last night. I would say that although it’s billed as ‘the Oliver award-winning comedy’ – and it does have it’s funny moments – you have to be in the mood to think and concentrate, and *sigh* alas last night my brain was definitely in Spamalot territory.
All that said, I couldn’t fault the acting from the English Touring Company, and the set was simple but effective – the large central table and quills, laptops, portfolios, mugs all appearing together, again cleverly blurring past and present.
So what am I saying? I’m saying go, but be aware you’ll get a lot more out of Arcadia if you’ve done a bit of research, know the play well or are happy about your brain being stretched by Stoppard as if it’s a well-stretched piece of Hubba Bubba. Pop!