Set play

ARCADIA. By Tom Stoppard. Chichester Festival Theatre

Benedict Nightingale, the Times theatre critic, wrote of Arcadia that never had Tom Stoppard "combined serious inquiry, humour and heart with such unobtrusive artistry". John Peter of The Sunday Times described it as "a detective story, a scientific fantasy, a piece of cultural history, and a love story of sorts".

Trevor Nunn directed the first production, at the National Theatre in 1993. Its latest director, Peter Wood, is a veteran of many Stoppard productions, including the European premi re of Arcadia. He too sees it as a detective story, one in which it is fun to watch the investigators flounder. Stoppard, he says, "reads, latches on to various notions - and out comes a play". But, however complicated the ideas in his work, he "can rarely view anything without a whiff of irony". Arcadia is bristling with ideas - literary, scientific, historical - but, says Wood, "the people (the characters) took charge of the play, took it out of his hands".

Set in a grand country house, Sidley Park, in Derbyshire in 1809 and 1993, it interweaves scenes from both periods. In the early 19th century, the precocious 13-year-old daughter of the house, Thomasina, takes maths lessons from a young tutor, Septimus Hodge, and casually doodles the second law of thermodynamics. Outside, the grounds are about to be transformed from neo-classical order into Romantic wilderness.

In 1993 (or the present, as Wood has decided) Bernard Nightingale, an arrogant academic determined to make his name, is propounding a theory that Byron was forced to flee the country after being involved in a fatal duel at Sidley Park. He duels verbally with nother academic, Hannah Jarvis, author of a biography of Byron's mistress, Caroline Lamb, and in the house to research another book. The neo-classical order of the park is being restored by the present incumbent.

The Byron theory is quite incorrect - a fact that the audience, privileged to return to 1809, knows perfectly well, and the "literary opportunist", as Wood calls him, is exposed. Meanwhile, Stoppard is making statements about our understanding of history and acknowledging, perhaps bleakly, that nothing is certain in our world, although there may have appeared to be certainties 200 years ago. The difference points up for Wood the "shabbiness" of modern thinking, its selfishness and self-exploitation.

This is an aspect of the play that Wood particularly enjoys exploring. "Septimus says: 'I do not rule here. I inspire by reverence for learning and the exaltation of knowledge whereby man may approach God'. It's the last time in history you could say that." Newtonian science was as yet unchallenged, but the more unsettling ideas of Darwin and Einstein were on the horizon.

Wood also enjoys the pairings across the centuries - the two teachers, Septimus and Nightingale, the two young geniuses, Thomasina and Gus (who "has an intimate sense of the past"), the two Lady Crooms, who both have a deep love of the landscape, one wanting to remake it,the other to disinter its glories.

The play starts, says Wood, "on the level of high literary farce". The ending, when the characters from both centuries interweave on stage and it is clear that Thomasina will die on the eve of her 17th birthday, is "very poignant".

Heather Neill

Tickets: 01243 781312.

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