Arcadia

Wed 27th February – Fri 1st March 2013

reviews

Michael McLeod

at 00:44 on 28th Feb 2013

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1disagrees

The St Hilda’s College Drama Society production of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ is a refreshing piece of student theatre. Avoiding many of the pitfalls of amateur dramatics in both design and direction, and choosing a play beautifully poignant for the University setting, the cast and crew have crafted something rare: a sincere and mature performance. A particularly welcome change, immediately noticeable before the play has even started, is the sparse set. There is nothing but the central table and a couple of panels in the background upholding curtains; even these are not painted or decorated.

If it sounds unimpressive, that is the achievement here. There are no indulgent set pieces, no attempts to stamp the stage with visual hooks – the play is allowed to speak for itself, and the ever constrained budget of amateur dramatics is justly directed towards securing well selected costumes and props, which express both the time period and the individual characters themselves artfully.

‘Arcadia’ is a play of two stories sharing a country estate, but set in 1809 and the present day respectively; all the time, the present is searching back into the past. In the past the estate is a scene for scandals among aristocracy, poets, and tutors, and the blossoming mind of a young girl Thomasina who is beginning to articulate science and mathematics ahead of her time. In the present, a collection of academics and students are looking back at the literary, historic, and scientific past of the estate. The themes of knowledge and truth, art and mathematics, history and science, are particularly resonant amidst the company of students. The writing is by turns humourous, heartfelt, and though provoking. Indeed, the play is worth attending for Stoppard’s writing alone.

That is not to downplay the cast and direction though. Whilst occasionally overacted – particularly given the small space in the JDP theatre – the play is anchored by exemplary performances from Alice Gray (Thomasina), Jonathan Griffiths (Septimus), and Tash Miah (Hannah). Gray and Griffiths show particular charm and skill in the more tender moments of the play, ensuring their constantly evolving relationship is both natural and heart-warming.

The humour of the play, particularly in scenes set in past, is too often heavy handed which, though achieving laughs, interrupts the flow of the dialogue and undermines the subtlety of text. The language of the modern day characters allows the cast to adopt a more relaxed style to some extent, and Miah in particular gives a performance which is both grounded and convincing, demonstrating that the play really is at its best when held in reality.

The ultimate collision of timelines in the final scene is both exciting and emotionally charged, bringing together the worlds we can’t quite unite, leading us towards the inevitabilities of the play but only ever showing us the way. It is not a play that offers answers, or necessarily asks much that you haven’t asked before (Stoppard repeats ‘am I the first person to have thought this?’), but what it asks it asks well, and one can’t help but leave with mind ablaze with questions of the heart, the universe, and mathematical graphs.

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