Most of the reviews we've read about the revival of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, soon to close at the Duke of York's theatre, struggle to produce a bite-sized synopsis of what it's about. Sitting down to write our own review we now appreciate just how difficult it is to sum up in a few short paragraphs Stoppard's reflections on humanity's never-ending pursuit of knowledge that are breathtakingly crammed in to his two-and-a-half-hour comedy.
Set in one sparsely furnished room of a Derbyshire stately home, we begin in 1809 with teen mathematical genius Thomasina Coverly (Jessie Cave) and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Dan Stevens), who is an old school friend of Lord Byron. Thomasina is falling for her dishy tutor but he's been caught in a compromising situation with a house guest in the gazebo and consequently receives a note from the cuckolded husband challenging him to a duel. Then we move to the 1990s, where ensconced in the same room, historian Hannah Jarvis (Samantha Bond) is researching the history of the house and garden when she is disturbed by the arrival of showy English academic Bernard Nightingale (Neil Pearson), following a lead about Byron which could give him 15 minutes of fame on breakfast television.
Stoppard weaves these 19th and 20th century settings together with a narrative that touches on the Enlightenment, Classicism, Romanticism, Fermat's last theorem, Newtonian and quantum physics, chaos theory and hermits. This is a play that offers a debate about the nature of belief and proof, a discussion of faith and evidence, and shows us that art and science are linked inextricably.
If all this sounds a bit like hard work, fear not. This is an intelligent play that commands you sit up and listen but Stoppard's genius delivers all this with delicious humour and some reasonably engaging sexual tension. His trademark witty dialogue positively hums with the energy of the ideas it contains and the sizzling banter between Bond and Pearson puts us a little in mind of Beatrice and Benedick.
Given our limited abilities to summarise Arcadia sufficiently, this truly is a play for which the cliched "must see" is the only appropriate recommendation. We think you'll get a good intellectual return on your investment of one short evening.
By Liz Bickerdike
Arcadia is at the Duke of York's Theatre until Saturday 12 September. For more information see the official Arcadia website. Photos by Catherine Ashmore