It’s hard to describe what happens in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and put across how much fun it is – mainly because the subject-matter sounds so esoteric. Two linked stories take place in the same room of a large country house: In 1809 Thomasina, an aristocratic young girl, is trying to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem as part of her studies, but ends up making a start on mathematical theories a couple of centuries ahead of her time. In the present day, two academics start investigating the events of 1809 – one wants to track the identity of a mysterious hermit, the other thinks he can shed light on a missing period in the life of Lord Byron. The various characters argue about the relative value of science vs art, but ultimately Stoppard shows that both disciplines can enrich people by creating boundless enthusiasm.
Which of course makes the play sound impenetrably intellectual but in fact, especially in the 19th Century scenes, this is a very funny play. The comedy of manners begins straight away as Thomasina’s tutor Septimus (Dan Stevens) has been caught in a compromising position with the wife of a failed poet. His attempts to get out of trouble leave a paper trail that confuses Byron scholar Bernard (Neil Pearson) in the present day, and sets him at odds with his colleague Hannah (a fantastic Samantha Bond.) Meanwhile she’s having a flirtatious relationship with the maths geek heir to the country estate (Ed Stoppard) who is looking at records from the same period in order to validate his own mathematical theories. By the end, scenes from the two time periods are overlapping on stage as the mysteries reveal themselves to the audience, if not to the baffled academics.
David Leveaux’s production is perfectly cast so it’s hard to pick out a favourite. Although it seems like it’s a prime situation for farce, most of the humour comes from Stoppard’s witty dialogue. While the modern-day scenes aren’t as laugh-out-loud funny for the most part, they’re still hugely warm and full of enthusiasm. Well worth catching, this is a great production of something fairly rare: An intellectual play that isn’t smug about its intelligence.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is booking until the 12th of September at the Duke of York’s Theatre.