Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom, Gray Powell as Hodge, Sanjay Talwar as Captain Brice, RN, Andrew Bunker as Ezra Chater and Kate Besworth as Thomasina. Photo by David Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas
Where can you get a clear explanation of carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem in two simple sentences? You are probably ignorant of one of those functions but you have already learned that carnal embrace consists of throwing your arms around a side of beef so that your education is proceeding apace.
You find all that out and more in the first minute or so of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. This is a revival of last year’s production at the Shaw Festival and continues to be a play and a production to be savored.
Stay focused on carnal embraces or sexual congresses, if you will, because it is an entertaining part of the play amid some abstruse scientific, philosophical, mathematical, botanical, cosmological and other discussions. Not to mention that by the tenth line of the play you encountered references to Julius Caesar and Genesis that you quite likely missed.
The point to be made is that Arcadia is a brilliant play that has a vast array of references, some esoteric, some familiar, all adding up to dazzling dialogue, laughter and mental gymnastics.
With one small change, the cast is the same as in the Shae Festival production of 2013 directed brilliantly by Eda Holmes.
Arcadia is set in Sidley Park, an aristocratic mansion in England, in 1809-1812 and during the present (the play was first produced in 1993). In the 19th century, Septimus Hodge (Gray Powell) is tutoring Thomasina (Kate Besworth), a 13-year old genius who is arguing about sex, Fermat’s theorem, the Newtonian view of the universe, just to mention a few subjects that interest her. Hodge engages in those discussions as well as enjoying a vertical poke with Mrs. Chater, the wife of the poet Ezra Chater (Andrew Bunker). There is also the mystery of Lord Byron’s visit to Sidley Park and killing Chater in a duel. And what about Hodge’s attraction to the lovely Lady Croom (Nicole Underhay)?
We have excellent performances from the cast. Besworth’s Thomasina is quick-witted, quick-talking and a brilliant arguer with the shrewd Hodge who has to tread a fine line between intellectual honesty and moral propriety while satisfying his hormonal needs.
Underhay as Lady Croom is sexy and haughty with just the right touch of the woman who has certain needs. Andrew Bunker is hilarious as the foolish poet who challenges people to duels in defense of his wife’s honour who is basically the local slut.
The twentieth century cast is dominated by Patrick McManus as Bernard Nightingale, an ambitious academic researcher and Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis, a bestselling author whose last book Nightingale trashed. The two actors have a marvelous chemistry for antagonism and we are delighted to see Jarvis get the best of Nightingale, the loud-mouth braggart. Splendid performances.
Martin Happer is a treat as Valentine, a dour and eccentric twentieth century scientist.
Arcadia is theatre at its best but it does require some effort to get the best out of it. You will laugh loudly, be intrigued by the mystery at the heart of the play and at times you will be confused and on occasion quite lost. This production brings out the play at its best even if the English accents are uneven. I saw the current revival twice. It is the sort of play that bears repeated viewing. You owe it to yourself to see it at least once.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard opened on November 9 and will run until December 14, 2014 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com