Bristol Spotlights Arcadia: Review

Having studied Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia in A Level I felt I knew far too much about mathematics, Newton’s determinism, iteration, Capability Brown, the Romantic garden’s aesthetic and ‘the decline from thinking to feeling’ for my liking. However, this happened to come in handy when watching Bristol Spotlights Arcadia at the Winston Theatre in Bristol’s SU on Friday the 23rd of November. 

The play is set in the stately home of Didley Park, Derbyshire, both in early nineteenth century England and the present day. Walking into the theatre the stage was set very minimally, all white with one long table in the middle stacked with books and papers. A perfect plain setting allowing for the action of the play to take precedence. 

For those who are unaware Arcadia makes use of mathematical and scientific theories so rather helpfully the programme offers a concise explanation for you to read before the action commences. When understood these references are fiercely funny as they were in this performance; I now thank my teachers for choosing it as an exam text.

Some stand out performances came from characters such as Bernard (the modern-day Byron academic played by Angus Cooper), Captain Brice (the military man played by Tadhg Cullen) and Valentine (the mathematician and eldest son of the modern-day Lord and Lady Croom played by Guy Woods). What set these performances apart was the brilliant comedic effect and timing they offered the play which is highly saturated in academic rhetoric. Cooper captured Bernard’s arrogance and misogyny perfectly, with his wild and eccentric movement around the stage as well as his booming passionate speeches on the study of authorship. Whilst these academic debates throughout the play were entertaining Woods’ comedic timing offered that much needed comic relief especially when aided by his sidekick turtle Lightning (get ready for a big laugh from the audience at that revelation) as did Cullen in the scenes set in the nineteenth century. 

What really impressed me apart from the humour was the more serious portrayal of gender dynamics in both time periods. The relationship between Septimus (the tutor played by Ned Costello) and Thomasina (the pupil played by Liv Pockett) offered a touching and romantic alternative to the modern-day relationship of Bernard and Hannah (played by Liv Snell). These characters fight like cat and mouse and what was enlightening to note was that the audience would laugh at Bernard when rebutting Hannah’s nagging but when Bernard becomes the “prat” of the play the comedic dynamics change. In another scene the dynamics of conversation with Hannah changed from academic discourse with Bernard to talking about Bernard and his attractive qualities with Chloe (played by Kate Crisp); that conversation between women is about a man was highlighted brilliantly by the actors but the Bechdel test would certainly not be passed. 

Whilst on occasion performances could have been bigger (like Lady Croom played by Charlotte Bartholomew or Mr Chater played by Jack Prowse) and lines were forgotten and names were muddled this was not to the detriment of the flow and the humour of the performance. For laughter, some not too alienating academic debate and complex (even touching at times) gender relations this was an entertaining watch.