MA in Literature, Landscape & Environment

Stoppard’s Arcadia

This is student Chao Xie’s reflections on a course visit to see a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia.

TheatreArcadia 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.

stageIt 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.

Arcadia, perhaps?




23. April 2014 by s.gregg
Categories: Field trips | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. Thanks Percy!
    I’m going tomorrow with BSU novelist Gerard Woodward and BU Professor of German and ecocritic Axel Goodbody. What I’ll be trying to find out is what, in the end, Stoppard is actually saying about all those themes you mention.
    Any views anyone?

  2. well Percy, where are we going indeed? It has been said that the only constant is change, but in Arcadia there’s also the Table which is a constant (I wasnt convinced by the tortoise which was always there but whose days are numbered I reckon!) So, all the world’s a stage on which we are but visitors but I suggest that Stoppard is saying that the earth will still be there after all its ephemeral visitors have left. The lights were Keynsham I’m afraid (and it rarely provides answers in my experience)
    Arcadia is indeed a tour de force by Stoppard and the audience were greatly entertained but I maintain that there is no humour in a ha – ha.

  3. A lovely post, Percy, and a great play – and the Tobacco Factory is a genuinely ‘engaging’ theatrical space. I remember Greg Garrard saying you could learn all you need to know about landscape history’s pretensions from this play … well, perhaps not all – I think the pretensions are infinite – and a sense of humour certainly helps. And what is Arcadia for, anyway? The intricacies of ‘carnal embrace’ in the shrubbery, or gazebo, or hermitage, or ha-ha, or …

  4. Great post Percy! I think some of your disorientation might also have been caused by the large amount of fish and chips that were consumed prior to the show. I was also fascinated by the links to deep time throughout the play. Stoppard is always inviting his audience to engage on multiple levels, simultaneously tracing various strains of thought that are interconnected. I think the human element in this play is offered as the greatest agent of change, showing us that while across deep time, even 180 years, it is our search for order and certainty that disrupts and brings chaos. While Thomasina’s demise is tragic, her study of iterations and chaos theory remind us that a memory or an idea can last much longer than merely a span of time decreed as ‘life’. So, in our strangely ordered and academic hunt for knowledge, we are perpetuating the chaos that somehow preserves us.

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