For my money, Arcadia is the greatest play of the 20th century. It is an English country-house farce about the death of the universe. It is a laugh-filled tragedy about what happens if you take poetry seriously. As a director, it marks a theatrical Everest. How do you marry the complexity of the ideas with the lightness of the comedy? How do you make us care about the characters while still following the discussion of chaos theory?
It is a truly extraordinary accomplishment, therefore, that this brilliant production was brought to the stage by a director in the Lower Sixth. Abi Watkinson is offering the play as her Extended Project Qualification, but, as befits Stoppard, she manages to balance the intellectual with the emotional.
The play is set in Sidley Park, an English stately home, in two different centuries. It opens in 1809, when a libertine Cambridge graduate, Septimus Hodge, takes a job tutoring the precocious 13-year-old daughter of the house, Thomasina Coverley. Reading through her Latin homework, she wants him to explain what "carnal embrace" means. When he tells her, she is appalled. "Now whenever I do it, I shall think of you!" she squeals. Septimus’ interest in carnal embrace is more than theoretical – he has recently been enjoying a “perpendicular poke in a gazebo” with Mrs Chater, whose husband, a truly awful poet, subsequently challenges him to a duel.
Freddy Williams plays Septimus with laconic glee, clearly relishing the chaos he leaves in his wake. Ayesha Mitchell brings a wistful innocence to the role of Thomasina, languishing in her unrequited love for her handsome tutor. It is easy to reduce the other inhabitants of Sidley Park to comic archetypes, but Ella Windle, Koby Ferdinand Okpala, Aaron Clark and Jetty Russell bring nuance and humanity to their cameos. Having recently left the family buttling business to play a bear and a billionaire, Harry Remnant returns to his traditional role as Jellaby.
The action then shifts suddenly to the present day. In the same house, a historian called Hannah Jarvis – a role written for Felicity Kendal and played here with characteristic thoughtfulness by Eve Hartley – is delving into the history of Sidley Park with the permission of the Croom family. Her work is interrupted by a braying, patronising English don called Bernard Nightingale who – we soon realise – believes Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, fought the duel and killed Chater. This would explain his until-now mysterious departure for France in 1810. It will be "the literary discovery of the century", he boasts, turning him into a "media don – book early to avoid disappointment".
Otto Rothwell Hurley perfectly captures the arrogance and pomposity of Bernard; his shameless seduction of the delightful Chloe (Charlie Tonks) is poignantly juxtaposed by her brother Valentine’s shy but heartfelt courtship of Hannah. Valentine is played with gentle warmth by Ben Lloyd: the moment when he begs Hannah for a “trial marriage – we can call it off in the morning” is one of the most touching in the play.
Thus the structure of the play is set. We watch the action unfold from 1809 to 1812, while the characters in the late 20th century try to figure out what happened using the surviving scraps of their lives. The stories alternate until, in the final scene, they appear on stage together, stumbling past each other, unseen, unseeable, yet locked in a waltz.
Stoppard is often accused of being brilliant but heartless. Yet here – at the core of his best play – is one of the greatest love stories on the British stage. Yes, the characters bond over ideas – but some of the most interesting people in life do just that.