It is generally accepted that Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is a dazzling play. If the dazzle appears to some so bright that it engenders obscurity, and to others simply and ravishingly brilliant, this surely brings to all concerned - producers, designers, musicians and cast - a particular challenge. To this the Hampstead Players, under the direction of John Hester and John Willmer, rose with consummate [apparent] ease and a brilliance of their own.
The set put us in the right mood with the graceful image of Sidley Park, the stately home where the scandal occurred. Scandal? Oh, yes, seduction in the gazebo and a pistol shot, and the name of Lord Byron tossed here and there. Though he makes no appearance, he has called for his horse at four o'clock in the morning 'Chater dead, Byron fled!' Room, to say the least, for speculation.
The opening scene went straight to the heart of the matter, with the pleasing exchange between Septimus, the tutor, and his thirteen-year-old pupil, the daughter of the house, Thomasina. Matthew Stevens gave us Septimus, sharp-witted, elegant and most accurately in period. Hannah Williams' innocence could not conceal a bright and enquiring mind [cleverer than her elders, Septimus says, and as it turns out, with a touch of genius]. She moves beautifully, and engages us with her charm and directness.
Patrice Dorling as her mother, Lady Croom, spoke her sharply-edged words with perfect aplomb and with more than a hint of that other aristocrat in comedy, Lady Bracknell. In fact all the characters, from Bernard who talks a lot, to Gus who says nothing at all [but says nothing beautifully] gave us the feeling that they were themselves more than a little in love with the play, and this sensation, as love is wont to do, crossed the divide between audience and stage. It was as if they were involved in a complex and engaging dance whose steps they followed with devoted pleasure.
Swiftly, when the characters of 1809 have in the opening scene set the fuse for the fireworks to come, we leave them to meet the people of the present day. If we would like to have seen more of Captain Brice, RN, in his splendid uniform, we cannot linger over this, for we quickly learn of the confusion which time works on truth. We meet Hannah and Bernard, immediately at odds over their interpretation of the events of nearly two hundred years ago. Elie Ball as Hannah gave us a wholly convincing character, an author who's tough, but sensitive to a bad review [not an unknown phenomenon] - and with a gentler side, mostly hidden. And Bernard? Barry Barnett brought to mind the title of an article written some years ago about A.L. Rowse Shall I Compare Thee to a God-like Don? He was the perfect God-like Don, convinced he was right when he was in almost everything wrong. As Valentine, Steve Pucci did a splendid job for those who may have thought the play accessible only to those who can solve the fiendish Su Doku - he explained his theory of turning a graph into an equation with impassioned sincerity, as if his life depended on it.
Everything of course contributes to the final pattern - costumes and light and sound, and that skilled back projection by Howard Hudson and Margaret Willmer. The costumes bought colour to the entire picture as always - Alison Berryman must take much credit for the charm of the eighteen hundreds and the accuracy of the present day. Joan Barton would have been proud.
And then there is the candlestick which Thomasina in all innocence brings to the table, and of which Septimus says [with perhaps a touch of foresight] 'be careful of the flame' - and which is the cause of the sad destruction which we do not see. No, we leave them dancing - waltzing - Septimus and Thomasina, Hannah and Gus, the first pair in perfect harmony, the second not quite at ease - and yet how beautifully they all move to close a brilliant production of a complex and fascinating play. I was reminded as I left of another title - Dance to the Music of Time.
Diana Raymond | December 2005
review appeared in the January 2006 Hampstead Parish Church Magazine.