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The Niagara Blog:     Shaw's Arcadia - Magic Moments of Sparkling Ideas & Lusty Passion

Kate Besworth as Thomasina Coverly Photo by David Cooper
Kate Besworth as Thomasina Coverly - Arcadia

As this magical play nears its wondrous end with four characters engaged on stage, waltzing in seemingly timeless starlight, someone from the audience shouts out, "Wonderful!" And it's deservedly so. Tom Stoppard's feast of ideas - conflict, humour and the vicissitudes of Arcadia,Photo illustration by Emily Cooper time is heady material that Shaw's brilliant ensemble expertly explores, including such myriad and esoteric topics as Newtonian physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, landscape gardening, entropy, chaos theory, academic posturing and more, so much more that the use of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to The End Of Love" at the end is luminously fitting:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love

The action takes place in a large country home in Derbyshire, England during two time periods, the early 1800s and the present. The audience is compelled to walk to their seats through two French doors fixed at the back of Sue LePage's impeccable set, symbolically moving from past to present and vice versa at the end. Time is a major theme in thought and prop such as a tortoise, particularly how it distorts and is itself distorted by passion drawn into sexuality and its inevitable "carnal embrace," the initial topic that 16-year, 11-month-old genius, Thomasina Coverly, (Kate Besworth) asks her earthy tutor, Septimus Hodge, (Gray Powell) to explain. Besworth exudes the robust vibrancy and quizzical nature of youth while Powell excels as the fiery yet learned tutor, a moth driven towards Besworth's flame.

With superb precision, Director Eda Holmes expertly employs the same set for both time periods, characters moving back and forth in time like a well-volleyed tennis ball. In the modern era, Bernard Nightingale (Patrick McManus) and Hannah Jarvis (Diana Donnelly) engage in a forceful love/hate relationship that sizzles, and their titanic battles over "truth" are intellectually stimulating and compelling, McManus delivering an extraordinary blend of conceited ego and hearty zeal, Donnelly replying in kind with venomous objectivity and striking wit.

Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom and Gray Powell as Septimus Hodge. Photo by David Coope   Nicole Underhay, Gray Powell, Sanjay Talwar, Andrew Bunker and Kate Besworth in Arcadia. Photo by David Cooper   Patrick McManus as Bernard Nightingale and Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis. Photo by David Cooper   Patrick McManus as Bernard Nightingale and Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis. Photo by David Cooper   Martin Happer in Arcadia. Photo by David Cooper

It's fascinating sport as we watch such clever characters in both periods expressing their brainy views countered by the hilarious antics of their foolish foils, Sanjay Talwar as a stiff and proper Captain Bryce and Andrew Bunker as cuckolded Ezra Chater, a would-be poet more concerned with rave reviews than a deadly duel with Hodge, himself so charged with testosterone that he services practically the entire female cast including the haughty yet sexually needy Nicole Underhay, constantly shimmering as lustrous Lady Croom.

In the 1800s, the family garden is to be transformed from neo-classical strict geometric proportions to ad hoc Gothic-novel romantic conditions by Ric Reid's Richard Noakes, complete with a hermitage which the imaginative and precocious Thomasina playfully peoples with a few artistic strokes of her pen, much to the delight of her tutor Hodge, a college buddy of Lord Byron, also there, but never seen.

In the second act, McManus plays to perfection the arrogant, publicity-seeking academic who recklessly pursues his clever conjecture regarding Byron's visit at Sidley Park. Stoppard's message is that we can never really know anything for sure in the futile and finite world of time, but that "it is wanting to know" that makes us matter.

In her Director's Notes, Eda Holmes begins with a quote from Martin Happer as Valentine Coverly - "til there's no time left. That's what time means." At first glance, this play seems to be about an incredibly wide range of topics - gardening, Byron, chaos theory. And Stoppard-s collections of passionate, hyper-intelligent characters are each devoted to their own realm of expertise with stunning myopia. Yet the thing that weaves them all together is time. Time is practically another character in the play - whether it is expressed as dates on letters or the hour at which a lesson or a duel is scheduled, as an element of scientific observation or as notions of past and future, and most especially as the rhythm of a waltz, time is the fabric upon which the lives of the characters unfold. Time is both an objective reality and a subjective experience, and in Arcadia the length of a lifetime can find meaning in the length of a kiss. Time is also by nature cyclical and as the stories of Arcadia unwind, Stoppard offers us the idea that even though our lives are finite we have a recurring opportunity to reach out to another human being and realize, at least for a moment, that we are not alone.

Arcadia playing in Shaw's Studio Theatre ends Sept. 7 and is sold out, not such a big surprise given the nuanced performance by this remarkable cast with many fine actors playing smaller roles than usual, Michael Ball as Jellaby the butler, Harveen Sandhu as Chloe Coverly and Martin Happer who has really blossomed this season, as Valentine Coverly.

Diana Donnelly as Hannah Jarvis and Kate Besworth as Thomasina Coverly in Arcadia. Photo by David Cooper   Gray Powell as Septimus Hodge, Nicole Underhay as Lady Croom, Sanjay Talwar as Captain Brice, RN and Andrew Bunker as Ezra Chater. Photo by David Cooper   Harveen Sandhu, Patrick McManus, Martin Happer, Damon McLeod, Diana Donnelly, Photo by David Cooper   Kate Besworth as Thomasina Coverly and Gray Powell as Septimus Hodge in Arcadia. Photo by David Cooper

The Author
From the program notes, we learn that Tom Stoppard was born Tornas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in I937. His Jewish family fled Czechoslovakia to Singapore in I939, the day the Nazis invaded. Two years later, they were forced to flee again when the Japanese invaded Singapore. This time, Tom relocated to Darjeeling, India with his mother and brother, while his father remained behind and was eventually killed in a Japanese prison camp. His mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a British army major, and the family settled in England in I946.

Although Stoppard is generally considered one of the most intellectual of modern playwrights, he never went to university. He left school at the age of seventeen after completing his "0" levels and began work as a journalist for the Western Daily Press (I954-58) and the Bristol Evening World (I959-60).

By I960, he quit journalism to become a playwright and began working as a drama critic for Scene, a British literary magazine. His first major success came with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (I966), originally produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival by a group of Oxford undergraduates. When the play was praised by critics, it came to the attention of Kenneth Tynan, literary manager at the National Theatre, and its production in I967 made Stoppard the youngest playwright ever to have a play produced there.

The play was equally well-received in the U.S., where it won both the Tony and the Drama Critics' Circle Awards for best play of I967-68. Stoppard's next hit plays - Jumpers (I972) and Travesties (I974) - won both critical praise and awards, and it was clear by this point that Stoppard was becoming a major figure in contemporary playwrighting. In I977, Stoppard's work underwent a shift in subject matter after a visit to Russia with Amnesty International. He also visited imprisoned Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. From this time forward, Stoppard's work began to focus on social justice issues, which were already beginning to be present in Travesties. His next plays, including Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (I977) and Professional Foul (I977), focused on issues of human rights. Stoppard's work also began to lean toward the emotional side of his stories, while still incorporating elements of social change and philosophy as he had in his earlier work: The Real Thing (I982), Hapgood (I988), Arcadia (I993), The Invention of Love (200I), The Coast of Utopia trilogy (2002) and Rock 'n' Roll (2006).

Stoppard has also written extensively for film and TV. His credits include the screenplays for Brazil (I985) and Shakespeare in Love (I998) for which he won an Academy Award. He is also rumoured to have helped George Lucas "polish" the dialogue for Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005). Recently he wrote the screenplay for Anna Karenina (20I2) and an HBO series, Parade's End, based on Ford Madox Ford's novels.

See: www.shawfest.com or 1-800-511-SHAW

Highlights From "Arcadia"

HBO Miniseries: Parade's End

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