Ian Dury had it right when he said, “there ain't half been some clever, er, coves”. Pre-eminent among these is Tom Stoppard whose erudition, wit and ventriloquism can leave one floundering, like Baldrick in Blackadder's wake.
Arcadia, first seen at the National Theatre in 1993, is by common consent, one of Stoppard's warmest, most accessible plays. Even so, it still manages to embrace Chaos Theory, a debate about the merits of Romanticism versus Classicism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is, however, great fun.
The play is set in a Derbyshire stately home and flits in time between the earliest 19th century and the present day. In truth, it would take Stoppard to do justice to the complexities of the plotting and the ideas, mentioned in brief above, which are touched on or explored, in two hours.
What impresses is Stoppard's apparent mastery of so many sources; his ease with big ideas and his ability to convey these in a way easily grasped, if just as easily forgotten once one has stepped outside the auditorium, the humanity that informs his writing and his range of register; high learning to low humour.
The cast of characters range from a precociously intelligent girl, on the eve of her 17th birthday, to a brash, vainglorious present-day academic and, at both extremes of the spectrum, Stoppard's writing is beautifully adroit and very true.
There are some terrific performances that light up this production, notably from Blake Ritson, tutor to the aforementioned girl and friend of Byron, and John Hodgkinson as the literary scholar and academic Bernard Nightingale. Weaker is Amanda Harris as the loud and slightly monstrous Lady Croom which seems too broad, too cartoonish, for the play.
The production is directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, whose production of The Rivals played in Bristol earlier in the year. Unfortunately, as then, despite some fine moments, the feeling recurs that ultimately the production lacks the sort of grip, of clarity, which farce demands. Things seem to slip in and out of focus.
Still, if this Arcadia isn't quite paradise, it is entertaining; a beguiling diversion which leaves you happier and a little wiser. What more could you ask?