03 September 2008

Et in Arcadia ego

Last weekend we went to Pitlochry to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was a very enjoyable day out. The theatre is modern, well designed and quite comfortable. As for the cast, they were excellent – not a single weak link in the performance.

The play was new to me. On the surface, it is a very entertaining comedy alternating between a pair of contemporary researchers studying a nineteenth-century literary mystery and the incident itself. But beneath the glitter, the brilliant word play and the humour lies something much bleaker.

Lady Croom is trying to turn the gardens of Sidley Hall into a latter-day Arcadia with the assistance of landscape gardener Culpability Noakes. But all is not well in Arcadia as rivalries and jealousies flare between the house guests (including Lord Byron, who never appears on stage). In the midst of all this, the precocious Thomasina presents her tutor with an essay anticipating the Second Law of Thermodynamics and foreshadowing her own premature death in a fire at Sidley Hall (tragic accident or suicide after being spurned by her tutor?). In the end all must come to dust. Even in Arcadia, I (death) am present.

Meanwhile in the present day Hannah is investigating the Hermit of Sidley. Her rival Bernard is trying to establish Byron’s connection to Sidley Hall. Valentine is studying grouse populations using Sidley Hall’s game book. And all of this worthy academic activity comes across as utterly trivial – a meaningless dance we indulge in as move ever closer to death.

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