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My first use of my Theatre Membership was to buy a standby ticket to the Saturday matinee performance of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. This is apparently meant to be “one of the greatest plays of the last century”, and I’m afraid to say that I’d never even heard of it. It’s probably not something I’d have bothered to buy a full-price ticket for, so the membership is already having the desired effect of broadening my cultural horizons.

The play is set in a country house, in two time periods – the very early nineteenth century and the present day. The set was quite stark – just a big long table and chairs with some french windows behind, but it was cleverly done in that props left on the table in one time period were often used as a critical part of the next scene, set in the other era. At the end, characters from both eras were on stage at the same time, and as the modern-day people were in 19th century fancy-dress for a ball, and the son of the house, Augustus/Gus, was played by the same actor in both eras, it got quite confusing!

The plot was quite convoluted, revolving around the efforts of some modern-day academics to piece together the truth about what happened in the earlier period – which of course we the audience could see unfolding so we knew what really had happened. It had some sharp points to make about academic rivalries, and how people can get so caught up in believing their thesis that they will ignore any information that contradicts it. One of the main modern characters was a thoroughly unpleasant and up-himself academic, who was absolutely convinced that Lord Byron had killed a minor poet in a duel in the grounds of the country house and then fled the country to escape the consequences. We could see what actually had happened, and knew that he was completely misinterpreting the evidence.

Surprisingly (at least to me), critical to the plot were some fairly fundamental discoveries and concepts about chaos theory, fractals, iterative equations, entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Newtonian dynamics and the Arrow of Time. One of the modern-day characters was a mathematician working on a PhD in population dynamics, and one of the principal nineteenth century characters was a very precocious home-schooled teenage girl who was years ahead of her time as a mathematician. I think her character was probably based at least in part on Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace. I had to think harder than I’m used to on a Saturday afternoon, but fortunately as an engineer I’m pretty numerate and was familiar with all the mathematical constructs presented. Much of the rest of the audience consisted of coach loads of pensioners from the surrounding district, and I overheard some of them complaining in the interval that they were struggling to both hear and understand what was going on!

Overall, it was a very interesting and thought-provoking play. I’m not sure I’d rank it in the top five 20th century plays, as advertised, but it was well worth getting a half-price seat to fill in a Saturday afternoon.