Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory usually does, well, Shakespeare, so to tackle Tom Stoppard’s contemporary play (first performed in 1993) as part of this year’s season is a bit of a departure for the company. However, Director Andrew Hilton knows what he’s doing, as ever, and Arcadia is presented with typical SATTF panache, wit and brilliance.
Hilton’s production reminds me why I love this play. The Tobacco Factory’s space is a simple one, a roughly square piece of stage with seats in the round. What the company does exceptionally well is to use the intimacy of the playing space to its advantage, encompassing whole worlds within a few square metres.
Stoppard’s play spans two distinct time periods in the same house, and tells a pair of stories that intertwine and get distorted across the years. In the early nineteenth century, Lady Thomasina Coverly and her tutor, Septimus Hodge, discuss geometry, science and waltzing, while in the present day academics Valentine, Hannah and Bernard squabble and bicker over their various discoveries and guesses as to what might have occurred back in Thomasina and Septimus’s time. The dramatic irony is by turns delicious, hilarious and heartbreaking.
It’s a play that manages to be about life, the universe and everything while focusing on the small lives of a very few people and a tortoise. In Hilton’s production, Stoppard’s language and plot are given space to shine. SATTF’s style is very spare, the set, props and lighting are minimal, and the cast are given the formidable task of keeping 250 people spellbound by a fast-paced, dazzlingly intelligent play which touches on a multitude of topics over three hours. It’s a challenge they meet with gusto.
Hannah Lee is excellent as the 13-year-old Thomasina Coverly, capturing a lovely mixture of naivety, wisdom and keen intelligence. Piers Wehner as her tutor, Septimus Hodge, is also excellent, managing to be simultaneously world-weary and charming. Matthew Thomas is clearly having a great time modern-day academic, Bernard, and Dorothea Myer-Bennett gets most of the best lines as Lady Croom, Thomasina’s mother. The play romps through an awful lot of maths, science and engineering, as well as mother-daughter relations, a cosseted teenager’s curiosity about sex, a duel, several affairs, and a visit from the poet Lord Byron. The skill, in both script and production, is that this never feels overwhelming. Hilton holds it all in perfect balance.
The production is also genuinely hilarious – and it’s no mean feat to sustain the laughter for the full running time. Stoppard’s dialogue is rapid and witty, and Hilton and his cast bring out every barb, put-down and retort. It’s a delight to see such a fine production of such a great play.
It’s hard to recall a better night in the theatre recently. The characters are deeply engaging (to the point where, Romeo and Juliet-style, you want to start calling out warnings), the costumes are gorgeous, the cast are superlative and the script is razor-sharp. Hilton has done justice to what is probably my favourite non-Shakespeare play, giving the Tobacco Factory yet another unmissable production. SATTF’s Arcadia is basically flawless, and I’m still grinning whenever I think about it. Go.
Arcadia is at Tobacco Factory Theatre in Bristol until 3 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Tobacco Factory’s website.