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Arcadia at the Gate Theatre

Arcadia is great. It’s a wonderfully dense, witty work from writer Tom Stoppard. The Gate production is, as one would expect, top notch, and the play seems to suit the surroundings of the theatre, with its lavish set design and production values. Whether you’re looking to wrap your head around something stimulating, or simply looking for an entertaining night at the theatre, you could do a lot worse than Arcadia.

Don't worry, he doesn't lay the maths on too hard...

Stoppard’s play follows dual narratives: one unfolding in 1809 following a rich family’s private tutor (and one of the area’s local lotharios) Septimus Hodge, and the second following a literary investigation going on in the same house in the present day. It turns out that there’s reason to believe that the house may hold the secret to Byron’s mysterious sojourn to Lisbon (which has, we’re told, never been explained), amid a seedy and saucy narrative of infidelity and death. These scenes are initially told in alternating scenes, before they begin to overlap in the second half. Trust me, this dual narrative structure is the simplest part of the play.

Along the way, Stoppard peppers his work with references and discussions on chaos theory, pre-determination and Newtonian (and quantum) physics. Throughout the play, characters separated by centuries articulate the same core ideas, but couched in the terminology and science of their times – hell, even direct quotations and phrases occur (two young ladies, for example, speculate on whether they might be the first to speculate that, if one were to know the location of every atom at a given point in time, it could be possible to predict the future).

If you could stop every atom in its position and direction, and if your mind could comprehend all the actions thus suspended, then if you were really, really good at algebra you could write the formula for all the future; and although nobody can be so cleaver to do it, the formula must exist just as if one could.


Stoppard contrasts this with the more reckless knowledge “through feeling”, the idea that we can intrinsically “feel” something to be true. As we watch events unfold in the past, we are treated to the attempts by various academics and authors in the present to deduce what occurred so long ago. Bernard Nightingale constructs an epic, fantastical narrative of a duel between Lord Byron and a little-known poet – one which ended with the romantic on the run. As he uses his personality to overpower those around him who would point out holes or questions in his theory, drawn from a game book and two reviews that may (or may not) have been written by Byron, we see the events themselves unfold in the past. Stoppard suggests that there are inevitably things lost to past, never to be recovered despite out best efforts. In discussing the burning of the Library of Alexandria, Septimus suggests that nothing of value is ever truly lost, as an idea lost will eventually be found again (perhaps in a different form). “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language,” he suggests. “Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”

Hell, the title of the play arises from a mistranslation of the Latin phrase et in Arcadia, ego – although there are several different accepted translations of the phrase into English. Somethings don’t translate well, particularly the organic things like language – such as some events of the past are also lost in translation. Even Byron’s presence in the game book, and the hare he claims to have shot, is revealed as something of a lie. Things inevitably end up getting lost or misconstrued and there’s nothing beyond what science can demonstrate (and maths itself) which can ever be portrayed as fact or be documented with any certainty. And, since we don’t have “a computer as big as the universe”, it seems that we might as well accept that.

But such is life. The characters speculate about predicting the future from the present, but we can’t even read the past. Using the metaphor of mixing jam into pudding, it’s suggested that “if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again” (another analogy used is a ball through a broken window, as no matter how carefully you put the pieces back, you cannot recreate the impact).

There’s a lot of truly fascinating stuff here, from the notion of infinite recursion and logic of iteration – in a way, much of what we are seeing in the present day is but an iteration of what has occurred before – a stuffy academic and young girl, the “numbers of nature” worked out on computers, as opposed to mountains of paper filling a small hermitage on the grounds. The landscape of the grounds is but an idea fed through an idea fed through an idea, “the Gothic novel expressed as landscape”. And yet there’s a wicked playfulness at work. Hannah Jarvis draws her theory of a hermit from a sketch drawn by Thomisina idly on the plans for the garden (before the hermit arrived). Life is random like that.

Of course, all these idle thoughts and discussion distract from the heart of the play. Stoppard’s wit is on fine form here, crafting witty characters and smart one-liners to ensure that those not interested in the more abstract philosophy are kept entertained. Stoppard is a great storyteller, and the cast at the Gate is more than able to bring his play to life in the style it deserves. Andrew Whipp deserves singling out for his portrayal as the pompously self-confident academic Nightingale, who he presents as something of a literary Top Gear host (equal parts Clarkson’s arrogance and Hammond’s charm). The rest of the cast are solid, bringing the play to life on stage – particularly Beth Cooke (Cyril Cusack’s grandaughter) as the young Thomisina.

The set deign is fantastic, and the transition between present and past is superbly handled – the audience is never lost in what’s going on (and when) – particularly when, near the end, the two periods collide together in a fashion. It’s a very well put together production which compliment’s Stoppard’s work.

Arcadia gets a very strong recommendation. It’s a play bustling with ideas and concepts which rewards the audience’s attention. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been this impressed at the theatre. Well worth a trip.

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