Today I went to see a matinee of the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. This is, of course, my favourite play, and I was thrilled to be seeing it. But not as thrilled as I was after I'd had the experience.
In order to care about any discussion of a play, it probably helps to know the plot. When I get my students to tell me a plot, I make them do it in five sentences (including one semi-colon), and it must begin, "So there's this..." Arcadia is a complex play, so I'll give myself six sentences.
So there's this English country house, and in 1809 its inhabited by a number of people, including a young female maths genius, Thomasina Coverly, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge, and Hodge's friend Lord Byron. Septimus Hodge sleeps with the wife of a terrible poet, who challenges him, by letter, to a duel as a consequence, but with much wit Septimus manages to avoid the duel. In 1993, an overeager Byron academic discovers the three letters in a book owned by Byron and draws the conclusion that Byron fought a duel with the poet, who disappears from view after 1809; a female colleague of his is highly dubious. It gradually transpires that in fact no duel was fought, and that Thomasina early discovered the second law of thermodynamics, but the modern academics don't know that because the evidence has disappeared (there is a mathematician in the modern house, so the maths is explained). We also learn that Thomasina died in a fire the night before her 17th birthday. At the end of the play, the modern academic's assertion is debunked, and Septimus and Thomasina, who have kissed earlier, first have a discussion about the end of the world, and then dance; she asks him to come to her room, tells him that she will wait up, and when he says he won't come they continue to dance, and two of the modern characters do the same, melding time.
Wooh. Okay, two semi-colons. But pretty good.
There were problems. Of course there were. Perhaps the biggest of these, for me, was the man playing Septimus Hodge, the tutor. This character is really the star of the play: he's the wittiest, and the sexiest, person on stage. In order to be that, he has to be very fast, so that the conversations he has are more like repartee on his part than anything else ("Septimus, what is carnal embrace?" "Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef"). The actor, however, decided to pause before giving the answers, which rather destroys the impression of wit. What's more, he often uttered his witty lines in a manner highly reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson, and that was just weird. Added to all this, he was thick about the middle. I'm sorry, but Septimus Hodge is just not thick about the middle! He is raffish, and raffish means slender.
Part of the problem here is that in the original production Septimus Hodge was played by Rufus Sewell, who in the part looked like this:
I think we can agree that he looks both raffish and not thick about the middle. Of course, what he really looks is Byronic, which is exactly what Septimus is supposed to be. And which this man was not.
And then...oh, dear...he missed out one of my very favourite lines. After Septimus comes back from not fighting a duel at 5am, he says to the butler, "The dawn, you know: unexpectedly lively. Birds, frogs, rabbits...If only it did not occur so early in the day." And this man didn't say the last sentence! Which makes the whole statement pointless, really. To be fair, I am an almost uniquely aware viewer of Arcadia, since I basically know it by heart...But to forget such a line?
Also, the people playing the two academics yelled at each other too much. I just don't feel those characters would do that.
But what was good about the play, you will say? And I will tell you: Ed Stoppard as Valentine Coverley. He was marvellous. As I said, the play normally belongs to Septimus, but in this case it absolutely belonged to Valentine, and this was simply because Ed Stoppard was the best thing on the stage (although the two main women were also excellent). It didn't hurt that he was pleasing to look upon (yes, he is Tom Stoppard's son, and if you look you can see that he got the curious bottom half of his father's face),
but to be honest, he could have looked like the back of a bus. Man, he was so good! He made the character seem as if he'd just wandered in from the street -- not as if he was the product of a page, but rather as if he were a complete and actual human being. I suppose this is what is meant by "he inhabited the part," but in this case it was more that the part inhabited him. I simply believed that that person was Ed Stoppard, and that Ed Stoppard was that person. (funnily, I think I said this was what I liked about David Tennant's Hamlet: that he was so human.)
And then there was something else... As I may have mentioned before, Arcadia is one of only two pieces of literature that make me cry every time (the other one is Middlemarch). I always cry at the end. But this time I cried all over the place! The first time was when, early in the first act, Thomasina and Septimus discuss the fact that her father is always hunting something, and at the end of that discussion Septimus says, "Yes. Even in Arcadia, there am I." I'm not sure why that made me cry: perhaps simply because until I heard it said aloud, I never realised how well it captured the elusive but true ubiquity of death in life. And I cried a couple of small times after that.
Because of the crying, the end of the play is always a bit of a tense business for me. What if I don't cry? Does that mean the play isn't any good anymore? Or I have become cold-hearted? But if I do cry, am I just faking it because I know I'm supposed to cry? Well, there were no worries this time: I cried so fully that big tears actually dropped onto my hands.
I used to say to people that I cried because 1. They are so happy; 2. You know she's going to go upstairs and die; and 3. She gets to dance with Rufus Sewell, and I do not. And this time I did cry for the first of those - it's a charming scene - and the second - it's a poignant scene - certainly (I want to say at this point that the tutor was very good in this scene. When she asks him to come up to her room: "You must come." "I cannot come." "You may come." "I may not come." "I will wait." "I will not come." [I'm sorry if this is wrong, but I'm working totally from memory, and this exchange is not one of the parts I remember well] he gave absolutely the sense of desire and frustration necessary). But I cried for another reason this time, and I think it was because...this was life.
Now, doesn't that sound like another one of my depressing utterances? "You dance with a hot guy, you're happy for a minute, then you go upstairs and burn to death. That's life, baby." But in this case that's not what I mean. I mean just the opposite in fact. You know she's going to die, and he's going to go mad with self-blame and self-loathing (thus becoming the hermit in the recently built hermitage: "How does one acquire a hermit?" "Well, one could advertise..." "But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence."), but in this moment they are utterly happy. And that, it seemed to me at that moment and I think still seems to me now, is life: terrible stuff might be coming, and death surely is, but on the way or in between we can be exquisitely, completely, delightfully happy; our knowledge that the world is running down, or that we are, does not interfere with our concrete happiness. And that's poignant, but it's poignant because it's wonderful.
I will be going to see this Arcadia again.