This is student Chao Xie’s reflections on a course visit to see a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia.
Arcadia has been considered as Tom Stoppard’s finest play by many a critic. Our course field trip this time was to watch the play in Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol. Rachel Gilman and I both had a large fish & chips before joining the others in the tobacco-factory-converted theatre.
It was an amphitheatre with several columns intruding into the acting area which, together with the studio-style decor, delivered a intimate ambiance. Although it was a play with time shifting between the past and present, the props – a big table, a portfolio, a tortoise, and a macbook – remained unchanged and served as a magical bridge linking the characters in different times.
Fast-paced, the play was ambitious and thought-provoking, discussing the dichotomies between science and art, past and present, Romanticism and Classicism, and order and disorder. These serious intellectual themes were balanced by sophisticated wit, provoking frequent bursts of laughter from the audience.
As the performers moved around the stage, we kept spotting bits and pieces we had discussed in our seminars. When Septimus was defining ‘picturesque’ to his precocious student Thomasina, I recalled how Sue Edney, our tutor on the ‘Country and City in History’ module, had humorously explained to us the difference between ‘picturesque’ and ‘beautiful’ in a landscape session. At that time, our classmates Verity and Trevor tried their best to explain to we international students the English Garden ‘ha-ha’. My thoughts also flashed back to Samantha Walton’s strand on ‘deep time’ when the character Valentine stressed the irreversibility of time. The play was continuously speaking to us, inviting us to get engaged. It was really striking how, in the last scene, the characters of both past and present appeared on the stage with each people in turns talking to the other from the same timeframe. The double times therefore merged into a seamless whole.
It was 22:30 when we left the theatre. Despite a taxi booking mishap we managed to hop on the last train. But I found it was difficult to get the play out of mind. Looking beyond the sprawling darkness outside the window, I had a strong sense of disorientation. Maybe it was the time to think in terms of time.
One year ago I was talking to Stephen Gregg (course director) and Tracey Hill (department head and tutor on Early Modern London) about the course’s field trips during the phone interview. Several months later I will go back to my own country doing something which I can not predict at the moment. If, as the character Valentine implied, all time is irreversible, that is what time means, then where are we heading to? The flickering lights in the distance outside the window did not seem to answer my question.