Stoppard’s Arcadia Plays with Time at the Royal Alexandra Theatre
Oh, Tom Stoppard. It’s easy for me to imagine that it might be exhausting to be brilliant, to have words and connections, phrases and concepts pinging around in one’s overheated brain at all hours of the day and night. I also understand that Arcadia, currently running at the Royal Alexandria Theatre after doing quite well at The Shaw Festival in 2013, is considered one of Stoppard’s finest plays.
By timeline, it took him five years to write, and it does seem to account for five years worth of thinking. However, I would like to humbly beg – on behalf of audiences everywhere – that if a gentleman has crammed five years worth of his brilliant thoughts into a three-hour play it be given to actors who do not seem quite so very over it.
To begin with, Arcadia is a play written for smartypantses; Stoppard’s Arcadia is a land where everyone’s read the same books he has (and enjoyed the same parts, too). It’s also a reality in which the distinctions between Romanticism and Realism are not just notations about what movie to see on a Friday evening but world views, literary schools, and even gardens. The play takes place in the same room but two centuries apart (give or take a few); the characters in the modern-day movements trying to unspool the motions and motivations of their 200-year-ago counterparts.
It’s amusing to watch each bit move forward in time but toward the same conclusive point of realization – this play’s dramatic structure contains everything from The Golden Ratio to an actual tortoise (the symbol of Greek god Hermes) present as a pet in every scene.
Unfortunately, the actors seem to have noticed that most of the audience is stunned with overflow of language by about the end of the first hour. Lines are rushed, jokes get swallowed, phrasings that could (and were almost certainly intended to be) comic just walk on by in the unending torrent of words. The audience is unwilling to risk a laugh, lest they find themselves under suspicioun of either stupidity or brilliance. So they just sit, looking endlessly at their watches and smartphones (I took to counting, the man in front of me looked at his phone eleven times in the latter half of the first act; once every five minutes) and shift in their seats. At intermission, a large number packed up their tents and departed.
Upon our return for the second act, it was almost as though the cast had been enlivened by the separation of wheat from chaff. The pacing of the performance improved noticeably, and we even got our first real laugh. I couldn’t help but feel as though the cast had saved us a treat for being good. All in all, though, it felt a lot like the audience wanted to have been known to see Tom Stoppard’s most important play, and the actors wanted to have been known to play in it, but no one actually wanted to be there all that much. Oh, well.
- Arcadia is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) until December 14th.
- Performances are Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 1:30pm
- Ticket prices range from $30 to $99 with a limited number of student tickets at $25
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.872.1212 or toll-free at 1.800.461.3333, and in person at the box office
Photo of Kate Besworth as Thomasina Coverly and Gray Powell as Septimus Hodge by David Cooper