Bliss now and then;Set play

15th October 1999 at 01:00
ARCADIA. by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Chris Honer. Library Theatre, Manchester

In 1809 the Derbyshire mansion Sidley Park is home to a hotbed of sexual intrigue and philosophical-scientific speculation, the latter from young Thomasina Coverly. And the grounds are being redesigned, classical order giving way to romantic chaos. Interlaced with this story, Tom Stoppard shows the same house today, with scholars bickering over their rival versions of the place's history.

Director Chris Honer sees more than the clever, emotionally arid Stoppard of earlier plays in Arcadia, which has a rich, complex array of human relationships and moments of poignancy. These centre on Thomasina, a maths and science genius before her time. She's first seen at 13 - the play finally shows her the night before her 17th birthday, which we know she'll not live to see. Her closest relationship is with Septimus Hodge, her philandering tutor. He gives her, with a warning to take care, the candle which will probably cause her death.

Honer appreciates both characters. "Hodge is very much taken up with his friend Byron, and is Byronic in looks and style. But as the seventh child he lacks an older son's means and has to take a job. Thomasina is brilliant at maths but also a good classicist. Her death casts a shadow on her Midlands Arcadia, yet we last see her in light mood, learning to waltz. Beside genius she has common sense to know what accomplishments a young lady requires."

There's a balance of dark and light in the play but Honer comes down in favour of optimism and sees Arcadia as "a celebration of people trying to solve problems and find out more about the world they live in, although they sometimes get it wrong".

Even the antagonistic modern scholars, misreading the past, are attractive. The Romantically inclined Bernard may lust after tele-don status but has a positive energy in his researches on Lord Byron; Hannah has an opposing coolness and reserve aligning her with the Enlightenment. "We respond to her self-containment - she's very clear about herself and sex. She has a dry wit and won't be bullied," says Honer.

Sex is a key element, not just the comedy of the philanderings in various outhouses, but as the irrational, unpredictable element that prevents the universe and the future being reducible to mathematical and (in the modern scenes) computer-generated calculations.

There's discussion of triviality, reflected in Stoppard's mix of the deeply-felt plus the scientific and historically significant, with his jokes and word games. Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom, is a Wildean character. But she acknowledges an Arcadian cloud in the "potential chaos in sexual desire", with her epigram that God's humour "directs our hearts everywhere but to those who have a right to them".

A large table dominates the stage. During the action it gradually fills with objects from both periods. "It begins to suggest that we gradually accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge and ways to interpret the world.

"And when the two eras eventually coincide, it supports the idea that across the centuries the characters are engaged in activities which are both similar and different," says Honer, adding to the play's celebration of human endeavour.

Timothy Ramsden October 22-November 20. Tickets: 0161 236 7110

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