Arcadia an intricate blend of science and art

The biggest comment I overheard from those around me during the Citadel’s production of Arcadia was, “Well, that was different.” And it is. Arcadia is at once a murder mystery, a love story, and an expedition deep into the realm of science unlike any play I’ve seen before. But while it’s different in some senses, it’s still firmly THE THEATRE in the most conventional of senses. The lights are down on the audience, the play uses realism, the fourth wall is firmly in tact, and you’re committed to an experience lasting 3 hours (plus an intermission).

Playing at the Citadel Theatre until April 12, Arcadia is one of Tom Stoppard‘s most acclaimed plays. The play is set in the study of a manor house in the English countryside and alternates between two time periods: 1809 – 1812 and the present. In both periods, we’re in the presence of academics who are deeply enthralled with their field of study – whether it’s physics, math, biology, history or literature.

In the early 1800s, Thomasina  Coverly (played by Julia Guy) and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Aaron Hursh) are mostly engaged in discussing math and physics and we see Thomasina’s brilliant mind jump between just learning about a topic to forming intricate theories about determinism and the second law of thermodynamics, to name a few. While Thomasina’s lessons are interrupted by other members of the household exchanging sexual partners, challenging each other to duels, and critiquing one another’s poetry, we see how quickly she is able to understand complicated mathematical theories and then construct her own theories that improve on the original.

Meanwhile, in the present, we find three scholars in different fields whose research all intersects with the events in the house that happened between 1809 – 1812. Bernard Nightingale (Jamie Williams) is trying to find out whether the house was the site of a murder committed by Lord Byron. Hannah Jarvis (Claire Armstrong) is trying to determine who the hermit was that lived on the property in the 1800s. And Valentine Coverly (Justin Goodhand) is trying to finish his post-graduate biology thesis on mathematically predicting the size of grouse populations. All three eventually find that understanding what happened in the house between 1809 – 1812 is the key in furthering their own studies.

Arcadia is a great example of why the Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program is so valuable. The additional development and rehearsal time afforded by the Citadel/Banff Centre Professional Theatre Program pays off in droves in this production of Arcadia. Tom Stoppard’s script is intense – this is a play of the mind and words, not of action and physical theatre. The script is intricate and full of references to complicated ideas and theories that have taken humans decades to develop. And yet, the Citadel’s production of Arcadia is tight – the actors don’t stumble over the complex terminology and it’s completely believable that they are the experts in their character’s respective fields. While it is long and wordy, I found it completely engaging – the character’s motivations are well-developed and every line of dialogue is delivered in an intentional way that moves the story forward.

The cast’s acting in Arcadia was that delightful performance style where it doesn’t even seem like acting. In particular, I enjoyed Aaron Hursh’s portrayal of tutor Septimus Hodge as an early 19th century womanizer, and the way Jamie Williams’ pretentiousness as university don Bernard Nightingale stood out even in a play that is pretentious itself.

I was initially a little put-off by the extremely young way Thomasina Coverly (played by Julia Guy) was portrayed. Her physical movements expressed a level of maturity that seemed even younger than the 13 years Thomasina is supposed to have at the beginning of the play – but I eventually saw that this decision helped us understand the way Thomasina’s mind works. Thomasina can’t explain the details of why she theorizes what she does, and she doesn’t explain her theories in scientific terms. Instead, she relates the physics and math that she envisions to rice pudding and rabbits. It’s Julia Guy’s physical and intellectual jumping around that make Thomasina seem so young, but also ends up making her genius seem so believable. In Thomasina, we also find the key to really enjoying the play: Thomasina doesn’t focus on the micro, jumping instead to the macro. Going into the play, I had a passing familiarity with some of the scientific theorems and literary figures the show presents, but the name-dropping (and theorem-dropping) that goes on in the play, all to help the characters gain cultural capital, made me feel a little inadequate until I realized that a lot of it is just academic posturing. What is important is the search for answers and the relationship between truth and fiction, thinking and feeling, and knowing in your mind vs. knowing in your heart that emerges out of discussing those theories.

Despite the excellent intellectual and character development, one aspect of Arcadia I thought could have been further expanded was the emotional connection between some of the characters. In the play’s closing moments, the audience is presented with images of two couples that are tragically beautiful, but the relationships between those two characters could have been developed more throughout the play so that the final scene didn’t seem so out of place in context with the rest of the play.

Of course, for a play set in arcadia (which comes from an ancient word for utopia), a picturesque set is expected and set designer Leslie Frankish did not disappoint. The painting and detailing in both the study in the foreground and the landscape in the background seen through the French doors evoke a perfectly peaceful picturesque landscape and position the house as the haven for academics and intellectuals that it has been throughout the generations. The real stand out piece of the set were the frescos around the top of the study, which evoked a panoramic view of the estate. I especially loved the collaboration between the set design and the lighting design (by Kevin Humphrey) and projections used during the scene changes, which subtly (and beautifully) showed the passing of time.

As mentioned, Arcadia is long and complex, but it’s worth it. My best advice is to grab a coffee beforehand, read the Citadel’s enrichment guide, maybe bring someone who’s familiar with physics, and accept that while you might not understand everything the characters are talking about, it’s the journey that’s important. Arcadia plays at the Citadel Theatre until April 12. Tickets are $31.50 – $84 through the Citadel Theatre.

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