Tom Stoppard’s ARCADIA is a theatrical challenge across many fronts, intellectually aggressive, scientifically dense with rich characters who live in worlds which mix the carnal and the cerebral. UTS Backstage, the University of Technology Sydney’s theatre society has shown over a decade of existence that it is not afraid of a challenge. And in this production, the company once again displays their solid commitment to both the drama and their audience. This complicated work is treated with respect in an entertaining production which is very well received by its audience.
ARCADIA takes place in one room at Sidley Park, a gracious estate. Initially we see the room in 1809 as a young tutor, Septimus, is setting exercises for his 13-year-old charge, Thomasina, the daughter of the household. When the next scene moves to modern times, originally 1993 on first production, nothing changes in the space. The two ages will share the large table which is the centrepiece of the production and an ancient tortoise which lives between eras. The modern characters include writer/ researcher Hannah who is seeking answers to some elements of the garden and her academic nemesis, Bernard, a professor who is convinced of a Byron connection with Sidley. The stage is set for a delicious, wordy treatise on time and our place in it.
Directed by Anna Rushmer, this ARCADIA reaches nicely from the confines of a drama soc production. Well-rehearsed and with clear and separate characterisation, the production is easy to hear, suitably costumed and quite charming in places. Rushmer is generally not intimated by the bulk of the huge table sitting in the centre and, apart from some static scenes with Septimus sitting too long, she moves her cast fluidly around the stage. Additionally, this director has very good control over the comedic aspects of the play, allowing them to shine naturally without detracting from the depth of concept in the dialogue. The intricacies of intent are extremely well handled by all the cast.
Beginning with Thomasina. Georgia McGinness displays good physicality and voice as she expresses the 13-year-old. Particularly effective is McGinness’ growth into Thomasina’s teenage years when we meet her character at nearly 17 later in the play. Her reluctant scholarship unless she is fired up, gives depth and carry to Thomasina, vital for audience involvement in the narrative events of the household. Her work is well matched by Justin Westlake’s Septimus which avoids being too rakish and unpleasant. His laid back, libidinous insolence is modulated to the situation and, as the driver of much of the plot, his expository work guides the audience’s period understandings into the modern-day events. This keeps the mystery alive and the complexities of concept sparking.
Emily Suine does such a good job as the prickly, brittle and feisty Hannah. Suine is a performer to look out for and in this role, she does indeed look capable of “I’ll kick you in the balls” but yet exudes a bedrock of character focussed on academic pursuits, ascendant with the internal dichotomy of the Romantic and Rationalist. Suine also has the rare actors’ gift of being to listen with intent. One can see the wheels turning without her overstating or overacting and her performance lights up the stage especially in those witty and replete exchanges with Bernard. The first of which is very well directed to balance the exposition skillfully with the character setting.
Highly entertaining to watch here is Michael Mulvenna who captures a particular kind of academic aesthete and gives a commanding performance peppered with Bernard’s not so hidden agenda. He brings that ‘darling’ attitude to his diatribes and that especially daunting long speech is varied and characterfully engrossing. He’s aided in this scene by the quiet performance of Tiffany Wong as Chloe who brings an indulgent, besottedness to her creation.
Much of the specific scientific dialogue falls to Hannah’s fiancé Valentine, Alec Farrow, and he does a mighty job of bringing light and shade, enthusiasm and frustration to the complex text. He uses his voice extremely well to give the dialogue variety and personality, avoiding any lecture hall echoes. There are several other performances which also fill the stage with complete characters. Liam Wood’s Augustus engenders a quiet empathy in the audience without any mugging or overtness. Amy Warner’s Lady Groom has the bearing and imperiousness of the landed gentry of the time. Jordana Wegman and Lada Volovelsky play the male characters with a loaded rivalry and Lachlan Perry and Shahrin Shamim round out a cast which is never less than committed to the work.
The same commitment is shown in Amy Lane’s costumes and Tanwee Shrestha’s production and set design. ARCADIA is a very enjoyable watch which successfully negotiates plot, character, story and intellectual challenge in an engaging production which puts UTS Backstage’s hard work on display. Congratulations to the team. Great job!