The director of the Theatre Royal production of Arcadia noted that the play is a ‘masterpiece’. Surprising (and saddening) though it is, I doubt many would be able to access this complicated, twisting show at all.
Arcadia follows a cross-section of intertwining dialogues centuries apart, whereby a tutor and his pupil make a startling discovery, which two modern academics unravel to give a seemingly forgotten story new life. The invitation into this quick-paced adventure is seen instantly from the unchanging set of a large, banquet table; one character tells, and the audience is with the other, in silence, learning drip by drip. The background as a whole becomes insignificant to the dialogue at hand, which is shown beautifully, for example, in the changing of light to signify time which we never explicitly realise as we are so focused on the plot. The tangle of both sets of characters on stage is also an unexpected yet pleasantly chilling touch, to show how time shows no boundaries.
The women were the true stars of the show, being a welcome twist in the male-dominated theatre world. Dakota Blue Richards has the same intriguing twinkle as Thomasina Coverly as when she led in The Golden Compass many years ago, whose subtle comments on life and chaos are only truly appreciated with your full concentration. Even so, the most memorable by far was the timeless wit of Flora Montgomery’s character (responding to a command of “Sit down and I shall tell you,” with ”I shall stand,”) which meant that her voice, regardless of it being right or wrong, was always respected the most.
Regardless of these pleasant surprises, it was very clear that in this full house, one demographic filled the majority: the elderly. The original production was in 1993, and though it may have been reprised, the audience has stayed the same, to relive the same jokes. These still fill the room with ease, but it’s still troubling none the less. Al Sentar comments that ‘the ideas are dazzling and Arcadia trusts its audience to understand them’, yet this is its ultimate downfall. Wilf Scolding swifts through his lines so quickly in the first scene, which the audience didn’t mind at all: they know the jokes, they already know when to laugh. Even so for me, I got lost in the detail, I didn’t understand. I constantly felt in a blur, and as the play ended, I still didn’t understand what mystery had been revealed, and what I was meant to take away. Yes, some concepts I understood beautifully, but these fell into the insignificant category and didn’t affect the story at all. I felt as if I didn’t belong, as if these themes weren’t for me as it is implied you should already know. Does this mean the play will soon lose its meaning as generations continue? I can’t say.
Arcadia may have a small cast, but its academic themes and complicated storyline are a breath of fresh air from the theatre today. Even so, this may be its demise.
Arcadia is playing at the Theatre Royal in Brighton until Saturday 7th Feb. You can get your tickets here.
By Robert Bone