Ed Stoppard On … Entering Father Tom’s Arcadia

In Arcadia, my character Valentine is a scion of the Coverly family as we find them in the present day, as opposed o the same family in the early 19th century. He has a good understanding of chaos mathematics and he spots the genius of Thomasina, who essentially discovered chaos mathematics 150 years before anyone else did. And I have the occasional joke, normally at my own expense.

I was talking to my dad about my character a few months before we started rehearsing. He said, “obviously, Val’s pretty straightforward.” And I said: “well, is he though?” Underneath the surface, Val is actually rather complex, as you would hope. There is something I find very moving about him, about his passion for his subject. To the rest of us, that subject may seem rather sterile, but for him it’s quite the opposite – and I find that interesting. With a football fan, for instance, their passion is easily accessible because, even if you’re not a diehard yourself, sports touches us all in some way at some point. But when you come across someone whose passion is about something which you know virtually nothing about, which you have no interaction with in your everyday life, which basically means nothing to you, that can in a way be more moving because of its unfamiliarity.

I have unnervingly clear memories of the original 1993 production of Arcadia at the National (when Samuel West played the part of Val in a cast that also included Rufus Sewell, Bill Nighy, Felicity Kendal and Harriet Walter). I was about 18 or 19 and I was probably just starting to become properly receptive so it stayed with me more than previous plays of my dad’s or anyone else’s for that matter. I still remember it very well, which can be a bit of a pain because the last thing you want is to be hearing someone else’s lines in your head.

In addition to it being an entertaining evening in the theatre, which shouldn’t be underestimated, I think Arcadia deals with themes that people can connect with and characters who they recognise and therefore empathise with. And, like a lot of dad’s plays, it introduces audiences to a subject, or several subjects, which they may have only had a slight awareness of before – so they leave the theatre with a lot more knowledge than when they arrived. It’s also fleet of foot, causing audiences to laugh one moment then stop still with shock in the next, so they never get too complacent or too comfortable, which would be boring.

This is the first of my dad’s plays I’ve been in, but I haven’t consciously avoided them in the past. The opportunity just hasn’t arisen. I definitely knew that at some point I would be eligible for a role in a production of one of his plays. Arcadia was the first one that came up which sort of fitted in with everyone, and fortunately David Leveaux, the director, thought that I’d make a good Val. It was a no-brainer to go up for it, and once it was offered, it was a no-brainer to take it.

There are umpteen characters Dad has written which I would love to play at some stage. There’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstem obviously. And whether I would ever get round to having another go at Arcadia, Septimus (played in this production by Dan Stevens) and Bernard (Neil Pearson) are wonderful characters. Also, Henry in The Real Thing, George in Jumpers, Henry Carr in Travesties, both Housemans in The Invention of Love, Max in Rock ‘n’ Roll … The list goes on. Almost every single play of his has a great character for a man. I’d like to play pretty much all of them.

Ed Stoppard was speaking to Terri Paddock

Arcadia opened on 4 June 2009 (previews from 27 May) at the West End’s Duke of York’s theatre, where it’s booking for a limited season to 12 September 2009. Directed by David Leveaux, the stellar ensemble also includes Trevor Cooper, Sam Cox, Samantha Bond, Nancy Carroll, Jessie Cave, Neil Pearson and Dan Stevens.