Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play, first seen at the National Theatre in a Trevor Nunn production that set new standards in high calibre country house comedy, was prompted by thoughts on the Chaos theory, the big bang, the sudden departure of Lord Byron to Europe and landscape gardening.
The action is poised between 1809 and the present day, and set in the one large cream-coloured drawing room. The scenes of revelation and discovery – it’s a thriller, too, with sexual congress muddying the waters of a war between poets – operate like a pincer movement in a profusion of words and wit before dissolving in a final waltz down the years.
There’s not a dud line in the whole piece, and David Leveaux’s revival, designed by Hildegard Bechtler and costumed by Amy Roberts, never puts a foot wrong and maintains a high level of intellectual energy throughout.
In the first scene, the precocious child Thomasina Coverly (Jessie Cave) asks her tutor Septimus Hodge (Dan Stevens), what is carnal embrace? The answer – “carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef” – sets the tone of witty caprice in all the subjects that Thomasina has intuited beyond her years and capabilities.
In the present, the popular historian Hannah Jarvis (Samantha Bond) and an ambitious, piratical academic Bernard Nightingale (Neil Pearson) - rival communicators like Septimus and Lord Byron - try and make sense of what happened while we try and make sense of what they are talking about.
It’s not an easy play to recall in tranquillity, but pleasure comes with every sentence that stings and sparkles like an endless stream of pearls on a long convoluted chain. The playwright’s son, Ed Stoppard, plays Valentine Coverly, Thomasina’s descendent, worrying over the evidence on his laptop, cradling the tortoise called Lightning that occupies both eras.
The world may be imploding, but one thing’s for sure: affairs of the heart find no explanation in Newton’s theory of gravity, or the second law of thermodynamics. And Nancy Carroll’s deliciously blinkered Lady Croom, drifting through the Georgian twilight impervious to the march of progress, is funnier than anyone, a triumph of human fallibility over scientific certainties. This is a very special play, and a wonderful evening.