Madeleine Girling’s set for Giles Croft’s new production of Stoppard’s Arcadia takes full advantage of the play’s long-overdue debut in the East Midlands region in which it is set. An enormous conservatory looks out onto a vast sky, giving a sense of the scale and grandeur of an estate under transformation and investigation. As characters from the early nineteenth and late twentieth centuries move about the conservatory, it is always clear that they stand aloof from, but dependent on, the land that lies barely visible beneath them.
The airiness of the set is crucial to a production that makes perfect use of Croft’s talent for uncluttered, clear direction enabling quick repartee between a fine cast. A wonderful distinction is made between the high-minded ideas of the academic (Nightingale), the aristocrat (Lady Croom) and the genius (Thomasina), all separated from the world outside; and the practical, material concerns of the libidinous tutor (Septimus Hodge), the embedded researcher (Hannah) and the natural scientist (Valentine). Tom Stoppard’s still-potent text touches on the most pressing debates in art and science, but in Croft’s production this is read brilliantly as a relative association or disassociation with the unseen natural world below.
Across a superlative ensemble, every character has a turn in the spotlight. Key to the nineteenth-century scenes is Parth Thakerar’s dry, offhand Hodge. Thakerar is scathing in his cynicism, sighing deeply and running rings around James Thorne’s hapless and unaware cuckold, Chater. Yet Hodge is a romantic, and Thakerar’s ability to articulate the character’s affairs and worldly mentality while also creating a heartbreaking emotional connection to the childlike Thomasina is remarkable, showing the thinness of the façade adopted for his professional purposes. Emily Laing, making her professional debut as Thomasina, is similarly complex in mediating between Thomasina’s naivety and her acute observations. As both Hodge and Valentine in different timelines fall for her scribbled theories, Laing’s steady repetition of her request for a waltz becomes a ticking reminder of the fate foreshadowed when Hodge presents her with a candle.
This key relationship anchors the production’s core interest in staging a debate in which intellectual pursuit is understood as the striving for emotional and interpersonal connection. As such, in the contemporary timeline, David Bark-Jones’s Nightingale is held up for particular scorn. This misogynist, obnoxious, arrogant glory-hunter of an academic barges in to the dilapidated world of the modern estate and proceeds to tear apart the dignity, value and innocence of its inhabitants. While there is pleasure taken in Nightingale’s multiple humiliations, Bark-Jones under Croft’s direction also demonstrates the terrifying persuasiveness with which Nightingale conducts himself and sells his theories. Although Hannah and Valentine are shown to enjoy undermining him both seriously and for amusement, Bark-Jones finds a swagger to Nightingale that acts as a bitter indictment of the professionalisation of the celebrity scholar.
Perhaps inevitably, the contemporary storyline is less interesting than the nineteenth-century one because it consists of a debate about methodologies and ideologies. Yet Ilan Goodman as Valentine handles his complex speeches brilliantly, offering his on-stage and off-stage audiences a cogent and passionately charged overview of the mathematical theories that scare him to the point of abandonment. Accompanied by Jacob Seelochan as his silent brother, Goodman shows himself to be the inverse of Nightingale as he hides behind his laptop or finally touches Hannah’s hand following a long lecture, only to find her hand withdrawn awkwardly. In Croft’s production, yet again, the play’s questioning of intellectual paradigms that function on competition and superficial scholarship comes through clearly yet offers no easy answers.
Bark-Jones’s charisma is both compelling and revolting; Valentine’s diffidence both amusing and frustrating. Hannah, at the centre of conflicting positions, is both attracted to and repelled by Nightingale, capturing in their tense scenes the possibility of playful sexual negotiation thwarted by competing intellectual stances.
Arcadia is a difficult play made crystal clear in a revival that places the connection to the land at the heart of debate. While its characters debate time, science, philosophy and art, the house stays constant, and the final two scenes showing the two groups interweave gains resonance in the last moments as two pairs of waltzers, one from each timeline, turn and swap partners, making physical Thomasina’s theories of iterated time and grounding the highest intellectual ideas in the simplest of human connections.