March 17th, 2011

La Loge


We counted up and realized that we'd seen Arcadia four times.  London, 1993, when it was new (In my diary, I wrote, "It made me cry for the beauty of it and the truth of it--and for jealousy that I didn't write it").  Boston, 1996, at the Huntington Theater.  ("The acting wasn't as good as London, but the play will stand up to an incredible amount of abuse.  We cried buckets at the end again.  Alexandria, entropy, loss, misunderstanding, beauty.  I hope I can someday write something half so lovely.") Boston again, in 2003, at Boston College, directed by Ellen's old school friend, who is the head of their theater department. (I can't find the entry for it, I'm afraid.  Perhaps I was just too overcome to write.  Or got home too late.)  And New York, 2011, in the new production at the Barrymore Theater, Monday night.

It was wonderful.  Arcadia is always wonderful.  The play itself is so close to perfect that even a problematical interpretation can only give you another way of thinking about it.  The way Stoppard orchestrates the dance of past and present, literature and science, romantic passion and scholarly passion, solipsism and generosity, middle age and youth, is a neverending delight to me.  Unlike some of his other plays (Travesties comes to mind), it never descends into pure speechifying, and you can always (if you pay attention) tell what's going on.  The text is fluid and complex enough to sustain more than one interpretation.  Septimus can be played romantic or caddish; Bernard can be played as a lit-geek or as a self-satisfied snark-monster.  Hannah can be a ball-busting Female Academic or a Priestess of Scholarship, and the text is still served, the play still works.

Our first Septimus Hodge, in London, was Rufus Sewell, and he made it his play.  The way he delivered the line about Mrs. Chater's drawers being in such a constant state of humidity as to grow orchids in January was both funny and incredibly erotic.  Bernard Nightingale was played by Bill Nighy and Felicity Kendell by Hannah Jarvis.  I remember Nighy as being dignified, full of himself, but with an undercurrent of a rather touching vulnerability.  Kendell's Hannah was abrasive, prickly, defensive.  Thomasina was precocious in the first half, very much on her dignity in the second, and heartbreaking at the end.  As I recall, the only really false note was struck by Harriet Walter (who I usually love), whose Lady Croomb was all attitude and drawl with nobody home behind the mannerisms.

This cast was completely different.  Both men were snarkier, chillier, more calculating.  Tom Riley's Septimus is a real roue.  Despite being told that he was in love with Lady Croomb, I never felt that his attraction to her was different in kind or intent from his vertical poke with Mrs. Chater, or that his affection for Thomasina ever grew past the avuncular.  Which is fine, and fits the text, but actually ups the squick factor of the kiss and waltz at the end if we think she's in love and he's just kissing her because that's what he does with girls, even when they're mathmatics geniuses.

And as for Billy Crudup's Bernard.  Well.  I hated him.  Not the acting, not the concept (the text allows it and the culture demands it).  Certainly not Crudup, who is a ferociously committed and thoughtful actor.  Bernard.  As Crudup plays him, he's a cad, a bounder, the scholarly equivalent of the kind of man who sleeps with models because he knows other men will envy him.  He's abrasive, gleefully rude, self-satisfied--intelligent, but not quite as intelligent as he thinks he is, unlike Nighy's Bernard, who seemed to be a little afraid that he wasn't as bright as he thought he was.  This thrust the burden of the whole scholarship-as-passion theme onto Hannah and Valentine, where it rests comfortably.  Lia Williams is a fierce, concentrated, very human Hannah, who reminds me, well, of me when I was working on my dissertation and passionate about the ins and outs 15th Century Copyright Law and what they meant to the dating of King Lear.  Her body exists to move her mind from place to place and provide senses to gather data with.  She's too in love with the Death of Romanticism to be in love with anybody alive, and neither Stoppard nor the production judges her for that. (Although possibly the costume designer did.  Her clothes were fashionable without being either stylish or attractive, and far too fussy for someone who didn't care what she threw on.)

Hannah's real male counterpart, of course, is the numbers wonk Valentine, and Raul Esparza gives him a lovely geeky charm that made me fall deeply in love with him.  He may suffer from unrequited love for Hannah, but he never loses his dignity with her nor loses sight of what is really important, which is the beauty of numbers and mathematics and discovery--and the unity and warmth of his eccentric, scatty, mostly off-stage family, which he clearly loves.

And Thomasina?  Well, Bel Powley makes a great 13 year old--she's got the body-language, the unbridled enthusiasm, the slyness, the moments of unexpected maturity, down pat.  I believe she's a mathematical genius, I believe she weeps over the burning of the library at Alexandria, I believe she's turning her mother's hair gray.  I was very disappointed, however, by her playing the 16-year-old Thomasina in exactly the same way, body-language and all.  It came near to ruining the whole Septimus/Thomasina thread for me.

But I still cried at the end.  Gazing into the abyss will do that to you.

Ellen and I have participated in two informal readings of Arcadia (she doubled Bernard and Septimus; I was Hannah and Mr. Chater, as I recall.  On one occasion, our friend Dan was Lady Croomb, and did a much better job with her than Harriet Walters did, for my money).  We like to say it's an actor-proof play, and indeed, it's just as affecting (for us, anyway) read aloud by amateurs as on the page or in a professional production.  If you can't see it, in New York or in revival elsewhere, you should get four or more friends together, lay out some bread and cheese or order a pizza, brew up a pot of tea, open a bottle of wine, hand out the parts and begin.  Be sure and start with the opening stage directions--they help get you in the mood.  And make sure that the man or woman reading Thomasina is ham enough to deliver the speeches on algebra with all the emotion at their disposal.  For in Arcadia, the love of algebra--and of literature and of history--is the love that conquers time and death.

ETA to correct the unforgivable typo mentioned below.  Rufus, can you ever forgive me????