STOPPARD’S MASTERWORK ON THE ROAD AGAIN
It’s a play of dazzling ideas, scientific and philosophical: Tom Stoppard at his most provocative. In 1993 the NT production won an Olivier; for some it is the greatest modern play. It artfully expands the grammar of conventional plays by giving us a country-house schoolroom in 1809 while overlapping its characters and themes with the same room today – the table nicely cluttered with quills and laptops alike. Today, two academics pursue their scholarly hares – was Byron a killer? Who is the mysterious vanished poet Ezra Chater? Was there ever a lunatic hermit occupying the romantic hermitage in the grounds of Sidley House? And moving on to the science, did the young pupil in that schoolroom, Thomasina accidentally uncover in her pencilled jottings and reflections on thermodynamics, the new steam engine and the nature of time some scientific truths about the cooling universe only to be revealed by computer algorithms two centuries later?
And by the way, which is the better approach to the world and to landscape gardening: the rational, tidy 18c Enlightenment look of Chinese bridges and elegant geometric lawns reflecting elegant ideas, or the romantic and Gothic mess of fake ivied ruins and numinous eroticism? Oh yes, it’s a layered play all right, a millefeuille of ideas and questions. But is it a nourishing confection?
I had the pleasure of being new to it, and deliberately didn’t read it beforehand, as if it was brand new – which for many audiences on this tour, a collaboration with EnglishTouring Theatre, it will be. But t for much of its length, despite Blanche McIntyre’s careful direction and my own fairly reasonable nodding populist acquaintance with modern maths (plus a traditional Eng.Lit degree to keep me comfortable with references to Thomas Love Peacock and the lesser writings of Byron) I was not especially beguiled.
Not, at least, in the longer first part. In the 19c sections Wilf Scolding is sparkily watchable as Septimus the tutor, and Dakota Blue Richards thoughtfully appealing as the young Thomasina (given the complexity of the ideas she must express, it will help when she gets better at projecting in big theatres as the tour goes on; she was not always quite audible). In the modern period – McIntyre blends the scenes and timeframes with great elegance – Robert Cavanah is terrific as the vain media-savvy academic, as are Flora Montgomery as his scornful feminist rival and Ed MacArthur as the mathematical son of the house, who uses the old game-books as exemplary data. He, indeed, delivers the first really good theatrical shock of the piece, over an hour in, casually informing them of something about Byron which the literary academics would never have got round to finding out. And in the final moments, at last real emotion is stirred as the doomed brilliant Thomasina’s fate entwines, and waltzes, with the heedless moderns.
But for too much of its length I found myself wishing that Stoppard had written it all as a novel instead. I’d have enjoyed reading that. Probably will read the play now. But on stage it has an absence of that vital “show-don’t tell” quality which makes theatre exciting. I will be directly at odds with many colleagues over this, but I found a more vivid breath of life in Stoppard’s new “The Hard Problem” the other week than in this beautiful, chilly crystal. Maybe I’m more of a gothic-romantic than a daughter of Enlightenment. Still, there’s room for us all.
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