by Tom Stoppard
all images c. Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre
In the late 20th century at Sidley Park, scholar Hannah Jarvis, who wrote a bestselling but critically panned book on Lady Caroline Lamb, is currently studying the elusive hermit of Sidley Park. Byron scholar Bernard Nightingale gate-crashes to investigate a little-known gap in Lord Byron's life and discover the reasons Byron left England in 1809. What they think happened and what actually happened are slowly revealed as the scenes shift back and forth through time. Lord Croom's heir, Valentine Coverly is a mathematical genius, on the verge of an important breakthrough while not-so-secretly pining for Hannah, who is too dedicated to scholarship to have time for romance.
The play is cute and funny in parts. My companion, mini Jane Austen, found it quite witty.
She especially enjoyed the references to gothic novels (Maria Radcliffe, Horace Walpole), the picturesque, Capability Brown and the ha-ha. She is certain the author of this play must have read her novels, especially the one she titled Susan but is known as Northanger Abbey. She also liked some of the Byron references but thought no one really cared about the scandalous relationship between Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb. I think I was the only one who actually understood what the characters were talking about! This is a play for Janeites and Regency devotees.
My human companion and I thought the play went on a little too long and some of the references were way too obscure. I thought the landscape design planning went on too long and was too obscure for most people. It was played for laughs and people found it funny because of the characters' actions and words but I'm not sure they really knew who Capability Brown was or what the picturesque was.
The mathematical theories and whatever it was were way way way too complicated and it went on too long. I understand Valentine's study of grouse. That makes perfect sense. Thomasina's questions about jam stirred into rice pudding and heat make some sense and it all came together in the end, but went on too long. It could have been trimmed a bit.
The characters are quirky and fun. Young Thomasina Coverly is cute and charming. She has a brilliant mind but like every teenager, is curious about love and relationships.
She is loosely based on Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, who is considered the first computer programmer. I can imagine Ada heard gossip about her Papa and had a lot of questions, like Thomasina. She is closer to her tutor, Septimus, than her own family. Her parents are taken up with shooting, landscape design, love triangles, and of course, how long until they can marry Thomasina off. They are worried she will be an unmarriageable bluestocking. Septimus tutors Thomasina with patience (most of the time) and humor. He answers her questions and understands her brilliant mind needs to be exercised. In the end, she outdistanced even his own brilliance. Thomasina is quite the main character in this show. At first I didn't think Septimus was going to be a likable character because he seemed to be a rake, constantly being caught in "carnal embrace" with one lady or another. He, like his pupil, has a brilliant mind and as the story goes on and Thomasina gets older, I grew to like him a lot. He may be schoolmates and friendly with Lord Byron and have learned a thing or two about "carnal embrace" but he is not Lord Byron.
The secondary characters in 1809 are not very likeable and hard to keep track of. Mr. Chater is a (bad) poet and apparently as good a husband as he is a poet. He seems a bit pompous and a toned down version of the type of character Jane Austen liked to skewer (Mr. Elton, Mr. Collins). His wife is always unseen but her other paramor, Captain Brice, RN, appears once in awhile to cause trouble. He is the villain of the piece in a sense.
The modern day characters are not all that likable either. I did relate to Hannah Jarvis, a scholar who deals in facts and has no time for frivolity and no patience for the pompous Bernard Nightingale. Something about him reminded me a bit of Mr. Wickham, as played by Aidan Lucas in the 1995 adaptation. He was also the type of character Jane Austen would enjoy writing.
The Coverly family consists of Valentine, the mathematical genius; Chloe, a young lady, older than Thomasina, but also interested in romance and "carnal embrace." Finally, there's Gus, the silent younger son, who appears to have autism. The young actor seemed to have the mannerisms of a child with autism anyway. I also think Valentine also had autism. He is a mathematical genius singularly focused on his study of grouse. He is socially awkward and jokes about Hannah being his "fiance."
The acting was excellent. There were some veteran actors in the show, but I felt that the younger actors did a better job. The stand out was Grace Viverios as Thomasina. A senior in high school and veteran of youth theater, she portrayed all the innocence and sweetness of the younger girl on the cusp of womanhood. She made Thomasina funny and charming. Though Thomasina's brother only appears in the end, the two interacted like siblings and played off each other well. The weak link was Deb Martin as Lady Croom. She overacted the character. Her gestures and movements were too over the top, especially for a Regency lady, and I was in the last row of the small theater. That style probably works best in a larger theater but in a tiny, almost black box, it was too much- almost like she was acting the part of a Regency era actress. Their faux English accents were pretty decent but they spoke much faster than BBC actors.
Now for my critique of the history... Being a Janeite and a Regency history amateur scholar, I nitpicked the history behind the story. I don't understand what on earth Thomasina was studying but I can critique the rest of it; aide from the anachronism of a young lady studying with a tutor, I'll let that pass since she is loosely based on Ada Lovelace.
The story revolved partly around the "Picturesque" movement, giving the play the name "Arcadia."
However, the story takes place in 1809 and Lady Croom wanted her park done in the manner of Capability Brown but also in the style of a gothic novel. It's my understanding that Capability Brown was the anti-gothic novel designer. The "beautiful grounds at Pemberley" that so attracted Elizabeth Bennet were done in a more natural style, probably by Capability Brown. I think the playwright confused Humphrey Repton and Capability Brown's styles. Also, the story, taking place in 1809, relied on styles popularized in the previous century. I thought by 1809 the fad for hermits and grottos and follies was over. I think I was the only one who was confused by the contradiction!
I was also the only one who laughed at the references to the popular Gothic novels of the 18th century. I LOLd at the Maria Radcliffe reference-I think I was the only one who understood exactly who the authors were and what the novels were about, though I've never made it all the way through. (I did try Mysteries of Udolpho but couldn't get into it). The play is about the end of the Enlightenment vs. the Romantic period. I didn't quite get the connection to the gothic novels and the romantic period. That's nitpicking.
The 19th century costumes were gorgeous! Lady Croom especially had an amazing wardrobe. Thomasina's dresses were beautiful and simple - just right for a young lady. My only quibble is that she wore her hair up the whole time. It would have made it easier to tell the passage of time if her hair was down and then later up. The gentlemen looked pretty good. The costume designer must make allowances for the theater and the ease of dressing so ignore the zippers down the backs of the boots and the looser fit than was fashionable. They weren't dressed in the finest fashions but Lord Croom is not seen and prefers country life to town anyway.