Tom Stoppard. A dramatist for whom I have immense respect. As a teenager who used to devour play texts like nobody’s business I did my best to keep up to date with all his works. I read Albert’s Bridge, and If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank; After Magritte and Artist Descending a Staircase. I hooted with laughter at the production in my brain of The Real Inspector Hound. At school, we read (for fun, because our teacher loved him) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with its amazing off-stage existence – we were also taken to see the National’s production at the Duke of York’s. We also went on school trips to see Jumpers at the National (a philosophical fantasy) and Dirty Linen at the Arts (where I sat next to our other English teacher whom we all called Andy, later to become more famous as the writer and broadcaster A. N. Wilson). I read Travesties, even though I hadn’t a clue who Tristan Tzara was. I took a prospective girlfriend to see Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (no chance). I saw the original productions of Night and Day, The Real Thing and On The Razzle and found them riveting. I took the newlywed Mrs Chrisparkle to see Hapgood and we loved it. Then, for some reason, I don’t think we saw any new Stoppards again – only revivals.
It didn’t take long for Stoppard’s reputation as a master dramatist to take hold. Certainly when I was reading English at Oxford (not known for its fondness for the avantgarde) Stoppard was a featured author if you took drama as a specialised subject – and that was way back in 1980. Today there are student crib notes and study guides for many of his works. It seems to me that he is as studied as he is performed or watched on stage.
Normally, at about this point in a review, I would give you a quick run-down of the plot. However, this time I don’t think I can give the plot justice. There’s so much in there, so much to understand, so much that you need to be able to recognise from your own knowledge; and I confess, especially as a non-scientist, there were considerable areas of it that I just didn’t understand at all. Stoppard assumes a level of intelligence and education in his audience, and, frankly, although I am no dimwit (honestly), I don’t think I came up to the mark. What I can tell you is that events in the early 1800s and events today are mirrored and juxtaposed in a clever and telling way. I can tell you that the 19th century plot contains a tutor who enjoys sexual congress with married women, a wronged husband/poet, a precocious student, and an ambitious plan to create a landscaped garden. The 20th century plot contains rival academics with their own theories to prove about the same wronged poet and same garden. And those academics get it wrong.
There are some particularly enjoyable aspects. We both really appreciated the central notion that modern day academics will misinterpret events in the past to suit their own ideas. Much sweat is shed over the identity of the secret hermit (an invention in a schoolgirl prank) or whether Byron shot the missing poet (no he didn’t). The facts as they are actually known get reassembled, and the gaps filled with hope and guesswork, by the academics to create a lie. As you can imagine that idea went down very well with an Oxford audience. As Christopher Hampton wrote in his excellent 1970 play “The Philanthropist”: it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.
Arcadia comes top of many people’s lists as one of the best plays of the 20th century and as Stoppard’s finest hour. I can see why. As I’ve indicated earlier, it encompasses a vast array of thought. It’s extraordinarily inventive, has plenty of witty Stoppardisms, and even features a tortoise (just like Jumpers). It pits chaos theory against determinism, 19th century against 20th century, academic motivation against sexual motivation. It ties up all its loose ends into a very satisfactory whole. I bet it’s magnificent to read.
And that’s really at the heart of the problem, as I see it. I think this could have been the most gripping and rewarding comic novel, giving you the time to come to understand concepts you don’t come across on a day by day basis, and to get to grips with characters and their peccadilloes. However, as a reasonably fast-paced play, it lost me. It sacrificed emotion and action on the altar of theory and cleverness. We both found it very heavy going, very wordy, very static, lacking any real sense of drama and really quite dull to watch. I liked the general setup that we were watching the same room two hundred years apart, and that it constantly went backward and forward telling separate stories – but when the two eras merged in the final scene I found the clever-cleverness of Stoppard’s device rather smug. It doesn’t help that it’s almost entirely populated with difficult, spiky or rude characters. I found that I didn’t have any personal empathy with any of them – except perhaps for Septimus, the 19th century tutor, because he’s a roué, a cad and a bounder which sets him apart from the rest of the characters, having something of a personality.
It was a weirdly strength-sapping experience. As people around us regained their seats for the second act, we heard comments such as “he’s not coming back” and “they hated it”. One man said “why is it always dark outside when the action is taking place during the day?” (good question) ; another said “the table on the stage is just too big. It takes up all the space and you can’t see what’s happening behind it”. I agree. The table is a constant presence in both the 19th century and 20th century elements of the play and gives it continuity. But percentage-wise it really does take up a lot of the acting space, and when characters sit in front of it, they block the characters or events that take place behind it. Another comment I heard was that people just couldn’t hear what was being said. To be honest, I don’t think there was much wrong with the actors’ enunciations or projections; I just think that some of the words and concepts are so alien to get your head around quickly that your concentration lapses in occasional troughs of despair and as a result you find yourself not paying attention to what’s being said.
As I didn’t warm to the characters, I can’t say that I particularly warmed to any of the performances. That’s not to say they weren’t good. Flora Montgomery as Hannah was very good as the modern, hard-nosed, essentially selfish and rude academic who always has to have her own way. I liked Wilf Scolding as the untrustworthy Septimus, considering his next move as though he were deep in chess. Dakota Blue Richards kept her Thomasina, the 19th century student, on the right side of being an irritating know-all. But really, on the whole, I didn’t care.
To get the best out of this play you really have to be match-fit. Don’t go after a hard day at work, or after a meal or a drink; take vitamin supplements and whatever substances you require to make you as alert as possible. Wear light clothing because your brain will overheat. Alternatively, make sure you read it in advance, then you’ll have a heads-up on what the actors are going to say and you can look a lot of the terms up in a dictionary first. And if that makes it more of a scholastic exercise than a play, ay there’s the rub. This is the final week of the English Touring Theatre/ Theatre Royal Brighton co-production. I’d love to see them perform something a little more accessible.