Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gotham Gal Review: Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

So last night I went to see the Broadway production of ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard which closes this Sunday. This is the first Broadway show that I have seen in god only knows how long, which is something that I'm hoping to change in the coming years (but more on that anon). I'm lucky enough to have a friend who gets TDF discounts so my orchestra ticket was less than half of the usual price although I had a restricted view.

I'm not a huge fan of Tom Stoppard, while I think he's a brilliant writer, sometimes he's too clever for his own good. He tries to cram so many ideas into a play that you don't know whether you're coming or going. I would suggest that if you are going to see any of his plays, that you read the script if it is published beforehand, or even afterwards, because there is a great deal that is just going to fly by you.

Arcadia is set in the fictional country estate of Sidley Park, in the years 1809-1812 and the present day. The events and activities of 2 modern day English scholars and the house's current residents are juxtaposed with the lives of the inhabitants who lived there 200 years in the past. In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the precocious daughter of the house, is studying with her tutor Septimus Hodge who is a bit of a rake. Hodge is a contemporary of Lord Byron, who is mentioned constantly although he never makes an appearance. In the present day, Bernard Nightingale, a professor of English literature, matches wits with Hannah Jarvis, a writer, who is working on a book about a hermit who once resided on the grounds. Hannah is the author of a popular biography of Lady Caroline Lamb (a personal favorite of mine), rescuing her reputation as an author. Nightingale has been critical of her work. Nightingale is working on a book about Byron, in particular a mysterious chapter in his life, and thinks that the answer lies at Sidley Park  Together, along with Valentine Coverly, who is a graduate student in mathematical biology, they uncover the truth about what happened in Thomasina's time, or what Bernard thinks happens.  The play deals with a number of things including professional jealousy, evidence and truth when it comes to historical research, it skirts the line between being a tragedy and being a comedy.

The play in both the past and the present takes place in one room in the house, the garden front room. The play started off slowly for me, I wasn't sure what was going on, since there is a great deal of talk about Newton and the meaning of the phrase 'carnal embrace.' I won't go into a whole summary of what the play is about, but you can read a summary here. Out of all of the Tom Stoppard plays that I have seen (The Real Thing, Rock and Roll, Invention of Love, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hapgood), I think that Arcadia is probably my favorite. Maybe because it contains several of my favorite things, Lord Byron, an English Country estate, and the Regency era. He would probably deny it, but I think Mr. Stoppard is a closet romantic.

The cast was Anglo-American, most of the actors were American, but three of them were English. As someone who has spent a great deal of time in Britain, I had no problem picking out which three, without looking at my program. My favorite character in the whole play is Thomasina Coverly (played by Bel Powley who is English). She is quite possibly the cleverest person in the room, which if you know anything about the Regency, was not necessarily a good thing, in terms of marriage. She's incredibly precocious in that annoying way that child geniuses are, but also surprisingly vulnerable. Bel Powley's performance was touching, exuberant, and funny. One of my favorite scenes in the play is toward the end when she gets Septimus Hodge, her tutor, to teach her how to waltz. It's particularly poignant because we know her fate.

Septimus Hodge (played by Rufus Sewell in the original production, and Tom Riley in this production) is a wanna be Byron but he actually has a conscience, which Byron clearly did not.  His role is that of the forbidden (I don't know why more Regency romance novels don't feature female pupils in love with their hot tutor). Lia Williams (who I saw in David Hare's Skylight many moons ago) plays Hannah Jarvis, teh modern day writer who actually does her historical research and doesn't cut corners the way Bernard Nightingale does. The weakest link in the cast for me was Billy Crudup (who I admit I haven't liked much since he left Mary Louise Parker when she was 8 months pregnant for Claire Danes)  who plays Bernard Nightingale. He chews his words while speaking really fast, which means that a great deal of his lines got lost. Stoppard like Sondheim needs crisp, clear diction. He certainly had the right attitude to play the role, although his accent kept slipping. Raul Esparza (Valentine Coverly in the present day), however, managed to speak at just the same amount of speed as Crudup, but I could understand every word that he said. Meryl Streep's daughter Grace Gummer plays Chloe Coverly, and unfortunately she looks so much like her sister Mamie that for a moment, I thought it was her on stage. She also has a similar quality to her acting, and lacks the facility for accents that her mother has.

The production was well worth seeing although I had mixed feelings about some of the acting.

For another more personal viewpoint on the production, head on over here to author Leanna Renee Hieber's review.

No comments: