Here I am, in Arcadia
Well, maybe it is great, after all. Am still in a bit of a fanboy daze about Arcadia, Tom Stoppard's 1993 play which has just received its first major London revival. I was asked to write something in advance about its claims to be a 'great' play, and had to confess that I was uneasy about the term.
Greatness, especially in theatre, is a mutable concept: each age takes what it needs from the past, and often those choices are unpredictable. Who would have thought that the acrid Troilus and Cressida or quibbling Love's Labour's Lost would have come to seem among Shakespeare's most pertinent texts? Or that Schiller's impassioned realpolitick would have secured a place on British stages?
Among more recent plays, it's even more difficult to predict what will stick. When text is increasingly a secondary element in so much memorable theatre, we have to wonder which of our own era's drama will survive, and in what form.
Nonetheless, Arcadia is a marvel. David Leveaux's revival is drier than Trevor Nunn's romantic original, and less charismatically cast. But to this fluffy-headed arts monkey it nails the science much more strongly, and the sense that ideas matter, terribly, to everyone onstage is thrillingly conveyed. This is in part due to a remarkable performance from Stoppard's own son, Ed, as the maths whizz Valentine tracking grouse populations on his Apple. He's knobbly and awkward - these are some of the most expressive ankles and cheekbones you'll see on the stage. And he not only gives the impression that he thinks as he speaks, but that he thinks as he listens. It's a rare gift.
Stoppard stretches between Romantic poetry and chaos theory, between the Georgian age and our own. The panorama of his subject matter may be wide, but not his social focus. The play nestles rather too adoringly among the ruling elite, plus the aspiring clever-clogs who hope to join them. Even so, the idea that we can define ourselves by what we think about as well as what we feel is both inspiring and quietly moving. I'm still not comfortable with labelling lays as 'great' or otherwise: but it's hard to think of many modern British plays that so confidently lay claim to the term.
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