by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Brighton Theatre Royal Production for English Touring Theatre
Bath Theatre Royal
14th February 2015, 14.30
Early 19th century cast:
Kirsty Besterman as Lady Croom
Tom Greaves as Captain Brice (her brother)
Dakota Blue Richards as Thomasina Coverly, daughter of Lady Croom
Wilf Scolding as Septimus Hodge, tutor to Thomasina
Nakay Kpaka as Ezra Chater, poet
Larrington Walker as Mr Noakes, landscape gardener
David Mara as Jellerby, butler
Robert Cavanah as Bernard Nightingale, academic and critic
Flora Montgomery as Hannah Jarvis, writer
Ed MacArthur as Valentine Coverly, son and scientist
Ria Zmitrowicz as Cloe Coverly, Valentine’s sister
Charlie Manton as Gus Coverly, mute brother
What the programme and adverts quoted:
The 4th most popular British play of all time in an audience poll.
(Arcadia 2015 programme)
Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia The Greatest Play of Our Age?
(The Independent 2014)
Tom Stoppard’s dazzling masterpiece
(The Daily Telegraph)
One of the most exquisite plays of the 20th century
Gets richer with each viewing … both moving and intriguing.
Olivier Award-Winning Comedy
Actually, that’s the 1993 production, NOT this one.
This is perhaps the place to say that I feel irrationally, impossibly confident that “Arcadia” is the finest play written in my lifetime.
(Brad Leithauser, The New Yorker).
Oh, no, it’s not! It’s really, really not!
Negative reviews. I praise extravagantly where I can. Avoid carping when I can. But it would be unfair to the plays which I rate highly to ignore poor productions. And this was one. I’m conscious that the plot of the play involves two examples of negative criticism which were anonymous, upset people and got found out. Septimus reviewed Ezra Chater. Bernard reviewed Hannah. But I’m not anonymous.
I can see, though I never saw it, how the 1993 original production, directed by Trevor Nunn, came to be so highly regarded and rated, Tom Stoppard cast his then partner, Felicity Kendal, as Hannah. Bill Nighy played Bernard Nightingale. I’ve seen both on stage. Both are magic and charismatic. Rufus Sewell played Septimus Hodge. I can envisage how wonderful they all would have been. But that’s a great PRODUCTION. Do not confuse it with a great PLAY, which shorn of its original cast, Arcadia is most certainly not. And nowhere near being so. It’s not even a great “Tom Stoppard play.”
Amazon sells several different print editions and several different study guides. So it’s a “set book.” I can see that as there’s plenty in the plot for classroom discussion. But one of the best plays of the 20th century? I know critics usually mean “Anger and after” by |the 20th century” though Look Back in Anger pales into insignificance next to Waiting for Godot in 1955. But the whole of the 20th century embraces Private Lives as well as An Inspector Calls as well as Godot or The Ruling Class or The Caretaker or indeed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. If we switch to “in my lifetime” adding the 15 years so far of the 21st century, there’s no question in my mind: Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
Reduced to a pedestrian 2015 production, the play creaks at the seams. It’s far too wordy, full of lengthy explanatory monologues. The proportion of monologue to action is such that I can see it working far better as a radio play. There’s nothing to see on stage, after all, especially with this mundane cream-painted, French windows, doors at each side, set. The entertainment is in the historical research that fails and the mathematical conundrums. Read it. Listen to it. That’s a fascinating and thought-provoking story. Why can’t you unstir the jam from rice pudding indeed.
But really there is nothing worth watching on stage. Great audio book, maybe. The actors come on and take fixed positions again and again. I got so tired of watching the sides of noses.
We have seen several plays directed by Blanche McIntrye … The Comedy of Errors (Globe), The Seven Year Itch (Salisbury), The Seagull (Headlong, Nuffield). I’ve looked back at the reviews. None of them got my highest ratings, though Comedy of Errors got in my Best Shakespeare of 2014 list, lower down. On the other hand, the Headlong version of The Seagull which she directed was memorably dire and pretentious. I’m going to place the failure of this 2015 production firmly in her court then. The stage blocking is abysmal throughout. The direction is frankly inept. The cast are fighting poor direction with the extremely dull set, that long boring blocking table and dull costumes. The default acting position is facing each other, directly towards the wings at 90 degrees to the audience. It’s a play in profile. It hampers hearing. We don’t get to appreciate the physical and visual side of most of the cast … Robert Cavanah as Bernard Nightingale is an exception because he is allowed to move about and does so significantly.
Thomasina and Septimus: Don’t face the audience whatever you do!
It starts off in the 1809 time frame at Sidley, a country house in Derbyshire, where Thomasina (Dakota Blue Richards) is being tutored by Septimus Hodge (Wilf Scolding). There’s an immediate problem. Thomasina is extremely difficult to hear even in row two of the Royal Circle. There are two deeper circles above that. They have no chance of hearing her at all. Her stage projection is at an unacceptable low level. Then Septimus Hodge, on a matinee, is loud enough, but appears to be trying to cut five minutes off the running time as he gabbles as fast as he can go through so many good lines and throws them away. Two hours later, Thomasina has recalled breath control, and projection, or maybe we got used to her extremely quiet voice. Septimus has at last slowed to normal pace. It was definitely not our hearing, the seasoned professionals playing Hannah, Bernard and Lady Croom were all crystal clear as soon as they appeared. But you can’t start the show with two barely comprehensible actors. And that’s bad direction. Let’s add the scenes where Chloe and Gus had to deliver their lines with their backs directly to to the audience. It’s rule one, isn’t it? Direction 101, for American readers. Break it at your peril and then only with good reason. I’ve seen Mark Rylance act brilliantly with back to the audience several times. But he wasn’t in this. And no one was in his league.
Valentine and Hannah
Then people get placed around the long table, side profile view to the audience, delivering these long, long, LONG explanatory speeches, usually while seated and static. This production is so static and so wordy and so lacking in pithy dialogue, that I just cannot believe all those accolades for the play. If those are all down the intrinsic printed stage directions, it’s very poor. But I don’t think they will be. I am a Stoppard fan!
We both noticed that Flora Montgomery (as Hannah) and Robert Cavanah (as Bernard Nightingale) constantly shifted their positions slightly, and shifted and angled their chairs so as to get their faces towards the audience. Both are excellent actors, who knew far more about the job in hand than the director. They had constant audience awareness, and instinctively so. Both also had a mountain to climb, being in the Felicity Kendal and Bill Nighy roles, and they put a great deal into it and both were outstanding. But it wasn’t custom-written for them. Kirsty Besterman also stood out as an excellent and very funny Lady Croom. She had great lines and delivered all of them so they worked. So many other good lines fell flat.
Bernard, Chloe, Hannah & Valentine
I hate to say it, but no one else in the production acquitted themselves terribly well. “OK” would be as good as it gets. More detail on others would be cruel, but the adjective “wooden” would have appeared several times. Again, it’s not acting incompetence, it’s the lack of direction.
Having slated the production (and deservedly so) we should move to the play. Original? In the themes of entropy and a “lost poet” in Ezra Chater, it echoes John Barth’s great novel The Sot Weed Factor about a real but unregarded poet, Ebenezer Cooke, the “Laureate of Maryland”. As someone who has devoted days and weeks to my own speculative research on literature and music, I like the basic literary detective story (failed) on Lord Byron with its twists and turns very much. You have to make imaginative leaps then test to see if they work. The central one here is Bernard’s belief that Lord Byron killed Ezra Chater in a duel. The maths chat is fascinating too, and it all comes together in Valentine’s research into the grouse-hunting records of the estate (trying to work out a maths formula from these lists of facts) but let me repeat, it would all have been just as good on the radio.
Driving home, we listened to the radio, where Clive Anderson was interviewing Maxine Peake on the “NT Live” concept of broadcasting plays. He pointed out that however much we are told that (say) Olivier was magic in a 1953 stage production, we have no way of “knowing” what he was like, but as major productions are increasingly filmed, we will know in future. That of course will change our perceptions. Maybe it’s bad, as new productions will have to live up to past productions. I’d love to see film of the 1993 Arcadia, but that’s locked in the heads of those who saw it.
If it’s a great play (and I really don’t think it is), then this was a weak production of it with uninspired and unimaginative direction. I’d say the applause from a full, packed house was “polite and appreciative” but not “enthusiastic”. My enjoyment was certainly hampered by the woman next to me falling dramatically asleep and jerking dramatically awake throughout, and by the two loud snorers in stereo in the rows behind me. OK, it’s a Bath matinee, that happens whatever the play, and there would be snorers here at the Second Coming, as does the phone ringing (unnoticed by the owner) and the person repeating bits to a companion, but overall, that’s how well it was received.
Two / three stars. In one word? Boring.