Tom Stoppard is in Oxford this week as Visiting Professor of Drama. At a Q&A with Dame Hermione Lee, he commented that he has ‘very little curiosity in revisiting [his] plays in [revival] productions’, as ‘I like to be looking forward rather than backward’. He elaborated, ‘my plays are full of references to things and people in common currency. Things are trapped in time and place and don’t move on.’
This is one of the problems with Fox Tale Productions’ revival of Arcadia. In the twenty-three years since it was first staged, Arcadia has come to seem dated. Fermat’s last theorem, a symbol for the main philosophical problem of the play (the relationship of nature with mathematics), has been solved. Despite its clever construction of interlocking times and its musings on academic discoveries, the play does not make any urgent points. The time lag attendant on all revivals could have been redeemed by a strong directorial concept, high production values, and outstanding performances but unfortunately these were lacking. The result is a three-hour long production, which does not particularly move or entertain, of a play that lacks social relevance.
Although perhaps a response to the nineteenth-century pastiche of the script, the cast in general was guilty of overacting, which proved jarring rather than entertaining. The acting style was not noticeably different in the twentieth-century sections, where the parts resembled parodies of stock roles (the hubristic academic, the rich daughter) rather than genuinely developed characters and indulged in lots of enthusiastic arm waving and shouting. Imo Reeve-Tucker as Hannah Jarvis was a notable and refreshing exception, playing by far the most grounded and understated character. Rory Grant as Septimus Hodge and Tallulah Vaughan as Thomasina Coverly, the tutor and his charge, warmed into their roles. Their last scene together approached tenderness but unfortunately this was lost in the busyness of the concluding moments of the play.
The set, following Stoppard’s instructions for three large French windows, was striking. However, the levels were underused; more could have been done with the upper level to merge the two time periods of the play before they dynamically collide in the final scenes. Having the costumes of parallel characters in each time period colour co-ordinate was an intelligent choice. Yet the hotch-potch of different colours and costume styles was hardly picturesque. Lack of attention to detail in props also grated; the use of battery operated candles elicited laughter from the audience at what should have been an emotionally affecting moment, as did the waving around of a soft toy rabbit as shot game. Such choices seem typical of a competent but rather incoherent production.