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Review Round-up: Critics Hail Stoppard's Arcadia

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David Leveaux's revival of Tom Stoppard's modern classic Arcadia  opened at the West End's Duke of York's theatre last week (See 1st Night Photos, 5 Jun 2009), with a cast including the playwright's son Ed Stoppard, making his first professional appearance in one of his father's plays.

Stoppard, who plays Valentine Coverly, a student of chaos mathematics who helps to unravel a centuries-old academic mystery, is joined in the stellar ensemble by Trevor Cooper, Sam Cox, Samantha Bond, Nancy Carroll, Jessie Cave, Neil Pearson and Dan Stevens. The production continues its limited season until 12 September 2009.

Arcadia begins in April 1809 at a stately home in Derbyshire where Thomasina, a gifted pupil, proposes a startling theory, beyond her comprehension. All around her, the adults, including her tutor Septimus, are preoccupied with secret desires, illicit passions and professional rivalries. Two hundred years later, academic adversaries Hannah and Bernard, are piecing together puzzling clues, curiously recalling those earlier events, in their quest for an increasingly elusive truth.

Several of the overnight and weekend critics concluded that Leveaux's “excellent revival” confirms the status of the play as Stoppard's "finest work". It was difficult to find a dissenter amid a raft of four star ratings, and the praise wasn't just limited to the writing. Amid the performances, particular plaudits went to the “deliciously blinkered” comic turn of Nancy Carroll as Lady Croom, Neil Pearson's “raffish academic” and Ed Stoppard's “sardonic, love-lorn mathematician”. And special mention was made of Hildegard Bechtler's “straightforwardly effective” yet elegant design. All told, a resounding critical thumbs-up.

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  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “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 … 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 … 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.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) “Tom Stoppard's 1993 play gets richer with each viewing; David Leveaux's excellent revival reminds us there is poetry and passion behind the mathematics and metaphysics, while Stoppard's inquisitive humanism is perfectly put by a female academic who says of our existence on earth 'it's wanting to know that makes us matter' … Leveaux's production reminds us science is instrinsic to the story, and itself a vehicle for emotion … Stoppard is always praised for his cleverness and his wit; and Arcadia has these in abundance. But the real test is that it engages us emotionally, and intensifies our awareness of what Lear called 'the mystery of things'. Elegantly designed and lit by Hildegard Bechtler and Paul Anderson, the play adorns the West End and makes us think and feel in equal measure. You can't ask for more.”

  • Sam Leith in The Times (four stars) - “What is the play about? Well, there’s the difference between Newtonian and Einsteinian accounts of the universe, CP Snow’s argument about the two cultures, the tension between Romanticism and the Enlightenment, the philosophy of science, non-Euclidean geometry and the history of garden design … There’s so much going on that the play is in perpetual danger of upstaging its cast. Ed Stoppard’s Valentine, for instance, forced to deliver a great chunk of dialogue about chaos mathematics, struggles to sustain the pretence that he’s speaking to the other person on stage, rather than to the audience … Arcadia isn’t exactly a chilly play, but it’s one where the ideas are moving, rather than the people.”    

  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (four stars) - “Opening as the news is dominated by grubby goings-on in parliament, David Leveaux’s lucid revival of Tom Stoppard’s dazzling 1993 play comes as a breath of fresh air. It is like having the windows flung open in a stuffy room. The depth, breadth and scope of the play are exhilarating, but what is so moving about it is its combination of head and heart: its passionate celebration of the human thirst for knowledge and desire to put a shape on the world … Not everything is perfect in Leveaux’s production. It is slightly starchy at the beginning and then seems to rush towards the end … But Leveaux and his cast embrace the wit of the piece and the staging is full of excellent, vibrant performances, particularly Neil Pearson as the raffish academic, Bernard, Samantha Bond as his sceptical adversary, Dan Stevens as the droll tutor and Ed Stoppard as the intense postgraduate.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “The play is ... curious, sophisticated and killingly funny. Leveaux’s production has an assured rhythm. Hildegard Bechtler’s set is straightforwardly effective, and the performances are engaging. As Septimus, Dan Stevens oozes a sardonic sort of charm, while Samantha Bond’s Hannah is poised, and Nancy Carroll as Thomasina’s mother Lady Croom has a sharp allure. Neil Pearson’s Bernard amuses - a whirlwind of inept sleuthing - and as Valentine the playwright’s son, Ed Stoppard, is twitchy, sensitive and watchable ... It is often alleged that Stoppard’s work is all head and no heart. Arcadia demonstrates that he is in fact a scholar of the emotions, as well as of thermodynamics and the byways of 19th-century literary squabbles. Leveaux’s revival confirms this is Stoppard’s finest play - highlighting its intellectual substance, and at the same time revelling both in its wit and in the tragic uncertainties of our quantum universe.”

  • Claire Allfree in the London Metro (four stars) - “Chaos theory, the Romantic imagination, Enlightenment ideals, Fermat's Last Theorem: all these and more spin through Tom Stoppard's fiendish play like colliding meteorites … No wonder it has such an intimidating reputation … It takes effortless acting to illuminate Stoppard's pyrotechnical wordplay and David Leveaux's production boasts several silkily precise, piercingly humane performances, including Ed Stoppard's sardonic, love-lorn mathematician, Valentine and Dan Stevens' languid, tragic tutor, Septimus Hodge. They highlight the play's gorgeous lament for the irretrievable achievements of previous generations and its celebration of the common pursuit of knowledge that joins those generations together.”


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