Marty Rea as Septimus Hodge and Beth Cooke as Thomasina Coverly in 'Arcadia'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Marty Rea as Septimus Hodge and Beth Cooke as Thomasina Coverly in 'Arcadia'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Donna Dent as Lady Croom in 'Arcadia' by Tom Stoppard. Photo: Anthony Woods

Donna Dent as Lady Croom in 'Arcadia' by Tom Stoppard. Photo: Anthony Woods

Et in Arcadia Ego: Even in Arcadia, there I am. The philosophical and aesthetic mantra that gives Tom Stoppard’s finest play its title is also its guiding principle. Even in this small stage paradise the author’s own ghost is everywhere, as the diametrical arguments that his characters pose represent the variety of intellectual positions and literary conceits that Stoppard’s earlier work has dealt with and its broad range of style and tone.

Set in the fictional Derbyshire country estate of Sidley Park, Arcadia presents itself as a literary mystery. Spanning two time periods –the early 1800s and the late 1990s – its subject matter ranges over mathematics, philosophy, literature, and gardening; concerns which echo across the time-lines and draw attention to the continuity of human endeavour to find and express the essence of life. As the young Thomasina Coverly, the outstanding student character, says, the quest to “understand the nature of things” is at the root of all life. It is at the root of all art too, and through his wide cast of characters and the generational contexts that shape them Stoppard provides us with the joyful multiplicity of that answer. As the play jumps between the generations, metaphysical materialism, natural philosophy and aesthetic theory go head to head. We get the thrilling hints of events that have already happened but we do not yet know about, and titillating foreshadowing of even more things to come. Arcadia is as edge-of-your-seat as aristocratic Britain can be, no matter what time period it is set in. Oh, Tom Stoppard is a very clever man.

And yet where the play bursts with ideas (and Wildean wit), its characters are lacking in passion. In 1809, maths tutor Septimus Hodge (a pensive Marty Rea) is already defeated in love and ambition, while Stephen Swift’s purple poet Chater is quite simply defeatist, accepting betrayal for small self-promotion, which of course turns out to be only another form of humiliation. In the 1990s, literary historian Hannah Jarvis (Ingrid Craigie) has almost removed herself from the present world entirely, but even her interest in the past is held in reserve. Meanwhile, the contemporary Coverly clan – Chloe (Aoibheann O’Hara), Gus (Gavin Fullam) and Valentine (Hugh O’Conor) – are, respectively, a debutant, an artist and an academic, all without ambition.

Only the brilliant Thomasina and the buffoonish Nightingale really have the glint of urgency in their eye, and both their quests for fulfilment are doomed: Thomasina’s by fate; Nightingale’s by foolishness. Beth Cooke’s Thomasina, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, peers into the infinity of possible worlds, which for her are impossible, thanks to her gender and her early death. Meanwhile Andrew Whipp, electrically charged as the promiscuous Nightingale, partakes in as many different worlds – all shaped like women – as he can.

Patrick Mason’s production for the Gate Theatre services the text well, making no apologies for the intellectual thrust of the play and allowing the farcical elements – the flurry of entrances and exits, the threat of duels, the re-costuming in the final scenes – to inject energy where some of the debating might seem static. Joe Vanek’s stylish intellectual interpretation places Sidley Park itself on the stage; a miniature model box of the house occupies a large part of the floor space up-stage, stage left. Its metaphorical implications are clear and clever – as is the green glow that climbs up the wall a little like a psychedelic creeping ivy. Lady Croom would describe it as clinical minimalism, but a touch of Gothic decadence might have given the production a bit more atmosphere. It also restricts the movements of the large cast, especially in the final scenes, when the characters wander in and out of their own realities and the full extent of the relationship between the generations becomes clear. Confined to only a narrow space in front and behind the large library table, the sense of duality is somewhat blurred. On opening night there also appeared to be some problems with the sound. Either the cues were a little slow or the cast had yet to get comfortable with its role in the production.

Nonetheless this is a stimulating and well-produced Arcadia. Et in Arcadia Ego could also be translated as ‘here I am in paradise’: a fitting echo of the satisfaction one gets from a play that asks of us the most important questions.

Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

25 May - 10 July, 2010

Produced by The Gate Theatre
In The Gate Theatre

Directed by Patrick Mason

Set Design: Joe Vanek

Lighting Design: Mick Hughes

Costume Design: Joan O’Clery

Sound Design: Denis Clohessy

With: Beth Cooke, Ingrid Craigie, Donna Dent, Gavin Fullam, Barry McGovern, David O’Brien, Hugh O’Conor, Aoibheann O’Hara, Mark O’Regan, Stephen Swift, Andrew Whipp.