Sunday, March 25, 2012

Theatre: Arcadia

Black Swan State Theatre Company
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Kate Cherry
 Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
21 March - April 1, 2012
Scott Sheridan and Whitney Richards        pic: Gary Marsh Photography
If ever a play has mastered the trick of being at once intricate and undemanding, Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s 1993 intellectual parlour game about four generations of one family in one room but 180 years apart, is it.
The reason is simple; there are all sorts of theories to explain the world, many of which – chaos theory, fractals, Kelvin’s theory of heat, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, population theory – are given a good going over in Arcadia, but, as the concupiscent Chloe Coverly (Adriane Daff) proclaims, it’s sex that makes it go around.
And it’s sex, in word and deed, which drives this creamily satisfying revival by Kate Cherry’s Black Swan State Theatre Company. There is much bonking done or denied, conspired for or hankered after, in picturesque locations like gazebos and piano rooms – all, I have to report, safely off stage. The talk may be of literary criticism, landscape gardening and all that mathematics, but there’s too, too solid flesh stirring urgently under those elegant muslins and linens (prettily draped by designer Alicia Clements, whose costumes and wedding-cake set are all that could be wished for).
This is not to say that Stoppard’s academic musings are merely a front for a bedroom farce. His ruminations on life, science, art and the pros, cons and pronunciation of ha-has are finely drawn and pleasurable, while the architecture of the play, the easy way it moves its apple from Isaac Newton to Steve Jobs, and the confident, unpushy way the playwright manages internal and external speculation (Did Lord Byron cuckold and kill Ezra Chater? Was Septimus Hodge the hermit in the Coverley’s garden?) is justly admired. It’s all gloriously stimulating and, as long as you don’t fall into the trap of taking Stoppard too seriously – I’m sure he never does – great fun.
Cherry matches Stoppard’s balancing act with a neat, stylish directorial one of her own, and Clements, lighting designer Trent Suidgeest and composer Ash Gibson Greig have the show looking and sounding point-perfect.
For all that, though, Arcadia is a play for actors, demanding great precision and clarity from them to bring all its pieces together cogently, and Cherry has chosen her cast well.
The supporting roles, Benj D’Addario’s stolid Captain Brice, Brendan Hanson’s foppish Ezra Chater, Steve Turner’s didactic Richard Noakes and Daff’s delirious Chloe are briskly drawn and memorable. Newcomer William McNeil makes a good fist of each of the young Augustus Cloverleys, and it's always a pleasure to see Edgar Metcalfe on a stage.
Kirsty Hillhouse and Andrew McFarlane, as the feuding historians poring over the Coverly’s past, are like Penelope Keith and Richard Briars, she impossibly jodhpured, he, somewhat unconvincingly I have to say, alternately a rooster and a feather-duster.
Rebecca Davis delivers a star turn as the arch, lusty Lady Croom. When she’s disdainful she’s very good, and when she’s in dishabille she’s even better.
But the show belongs to the three young leads, each an inspired fit for their roles. Scott Sheridan is scrumptious as the lady-killing tutor Septimus Hodge. He’s got a Heathcliffe or Darcy in him, that boy. Nick Maclaine, making his flagship company debut, is intelligent, measured and beautifully convincing as the skeptical young mathemetician Valentine, falling under the spell of the mind of a distant cousin nearly two centuries dead.
And Whitney Richards gives an incandescent performance as the sweet, precocious Thomasina, as good as anything you’re going to see on any stage, anywhere. When, on the eve of her 17th birthday, Thomasina goes up to her room with the candle that will set fire to it and kill her later that night, you feel a great, irresistible sadness. Richards has such a store of natural empathy that all the clever artifice of Arcadia, seductive as it is, falls away in a moment of simple, heartfelt, emotion.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian link here .         

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