Paul Ashley with permission for Varsity

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is regularly cited as one of the greatest plays of the last 50 years. It is a drama of scholarship, gardening, ideas and sex. Its storyline, structure and content relies on fundamental dichotomies: order and chaos, classical and romantic, science and arts - in the end revealing how existence may resist and defy such narrow categorisation. The play is more than just a list of increasingly complex and abstract mathematical and philosophical theories - it also touches on the complexities and trivialities of humanity and emotion. This year’s production on the ADC stage is both delicate and thoughtful, expertly capturing the tension between these juxtaposing categories.

“The play is more than just a list of increasingly complex and abstract mathematical and philosophical theories”

One of Arcadia’s main projects is articulating the tension between certainty and uncertainty: what can we know and how might we know it? Certainly my experience of watching the play also teetered between these two poles. Before watching the play, I read a synopsis and was completely baffled by the complexity of the subject matter. I was most definitely ‘uncertain’ upon entering the auditorium - anxious about the thick and somewhat impenetrable language and intellectual debate presented in the text. My fear was that as an audience member with little knowledge of English or Mathematical scholarship, I may feel alienated or lost in the subject matter. I didn’t want to leave the play once again feeling that sense of imposter syndrome that is so entrenched into the Cambridge student experience.

However, upon watching the play, I soon was lurched into the realm of ‘certainty’ by the vibrancy and quality of acting on stage. Lucia Guzy-Kirkden’s animated, brilliant and quick-witted portrayal of Septimus Hodge cut sharply through the lengthy theoretical descriptions and grasped firmly onto the subtle hilarity and wit of Stoppard’s writing. The audience were charmed by Kirkden’s ease and comfortability on stage - resulting in some brilliant one liners which had the audience in fits of laughter. Gabriella Shennan’s Thomasina was equally brilliant, effortlessly capturing the excitement, curiosity and anticipation of early girlhood in her quick and sharp delivery. Another notable performance came from Mia Glencrose, whose blustering portrayal of Bernard Nightingale expertly replicated the arrogance and swagger of some all-too-familiar male academics.

Each member of the cast was dedicated and convincing in both physicalization and voice, and worked together perfectly to produce a coherent and entertaining ensemble. In my opinion, the best performances happen when you can feel that people are having fun together on stage, which certainly appeared to be the case here. Another standout performance came from Thea Fennell, whose pompous and grandiose portrayal of Lady Croom could have been plucked straight from Downton Abbey. She commanded the stage, delivering her lines with a shrewdness and wit that had the audience cackling.

“I soon was lurched into the realm of ‘certainty’ by the vibrancy and quality of acting on stage”

Stan Hunt’s directorial vision also approached the theme of chaos vs order both in a thought-provoking and aesthetically pleasing way. Towards the beginning of the play, the muted colours of the costume and set exuded a sort of order, a uniformness that was almost stifling. The lighting and sound design also followed this pattern - using stale colours and classical piano pieces. One particularly beautiful moment came during the transition scenes when a light from above shone through the windows, creating an eerie sense of suspension from time and space. However, as the play descended into chaos the sound and costume became more erratic, capturing a sense of collapse between the different eras and storylines. I particularly enjoyed the show ending: Matt Maltese’s ‘As the World Caves in’ blaring through the speakers as the set is dismantled before the audience’s eyes, as though the universe itself is crumpling.


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Due to the show’s long and winding dialogue, more could have been made of the set, incorporating more diversity in blocking and levels, perhaps providing more to look at on stage. I appreciate the aesthetic coherency of a minimalist set but having more to play with visually may have helped to break up the longer and more complicated chunks of text that in various moments had me struggling to catch up.

This production of Arcadia perfectly captures the synthesis of order and chaos, certainty and uncertainty through both its acting and design. It also brought a more human element to the play through the delicate and careful exploration of more human emotions such as lust and fear. Whilst a couple of scenes did leave me feeling uncertain and lost in an incomprehensible world of mathematics and science, many other scenes left me feeling assured and ‘certain’ - comforted by the comedy and brilliance of the actors on stage. And perhaps this is Stoppard’s message after all - the human experience is complicated and difficult - we can find order within chaos, certainty within uncertainty, and that is part of the joy of being alive. I would certainly urge anyone with a free evening this week to head down to the ADC to see this week’s production of Arcadia.

Arcadia is showing at the ADC Theatre until the 27th of January.