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SUDS’ Arcadia: Everything you need to know about sex, mathematics and literature

It’s like a night in with that sophisticated friend who you only see on rare occasions.

Photography by Yang Wu.

SUDS’ production of Arcadia — directed by Tilda Wilkinson-Finch, assistant directed by Bella Wellstead — opened on Wednesday night. The production is like a night in with that sophisticated friend who you only see on rare occasions. You enter his weird house, with its dark green plaster, and shelves full of oak and brass oddities (set designed by Annie Lewis), and sit by his fireplace with a glass of white wine. In his velvet dressing gown (costuming by Victoria Gillespie), he reclines in an armchair and talks. As he describes things to you, the shadows on the bookshelves become the figures of history, and although you occasionally miss things, you leave his house with a sense of pride and awe, feeling like you are in on a wonderful secret.

The play follows two generations of academics in the same house, the audience forming the third generation. The production is coolly intelligent, bringing a scientific attitude to sex and desire, as well as thermodynamics. The play gives everyone who sees it a sense of pride in their studies, a possessive love of their chosen field, and an appreciation of their place in the ‘procession of knowledge’ described by the tutor Septimus (Charlie Papps).

In a play where the action is slow and measured, the entire cast bring humour, vivacity, and intelligence to their roles. The young student Tomasina (Ruby Zupp), is a stand-in for all the underappreciated female academics of history. Zupp balances her young angst with a believable streak of genius that makes her character the heart of the play. Septimus, her tutor, was a comedic gold-mine, with every word uttered dripping with sarcasm. The Lord Byron fanatic Bernard (Max Danta) is superbly charming, rushing about manically searching for proof for his academic theories. His foil, the author and researcher Hannah (Amber Broadbent) is gratingly cynical, and their back-and-forth is a straight satire of the decades-long squabbles in research communities. The characters of the play are full of quirks and idiosyncrasies that serve to make the slower subtleties of the plot energetic and intriguing.

The play makes an attempt to bridge the wide — and often unhappy — gulf between literature and mathematics. Bernard’s lust for proof and obsession with his lectures casts literature and legacy in a cold light of ‘personalities’. Female characters in the play profess an unashamed interest and expertise in fields of mathematics and science, and reveal the incredible beauty in formulas and mathematical patterns. Watching Tomasina and Valentine (Eimer Hayes) discuss infinite equations and universal entropy with fervour and confidence is a compliment to women in STEM everywhere. If you’re afraid of mathematics — which many people are — or if you’re daunted by that prerequisite statistics course, Arcadia will show you how it can satiate a desire for answers in a way that nothing else can.

Considering the heavy themes of patriarchal forces in academia, the use of genderblind casting in the production is interesting. On the whole it adds to the strange fluid reality that characterises many of Stoppard’s plays. This particular strangeness — made famous in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is wonderfully achieved  by the directors. Wilkinson-Finch and Bella Wellstead, as well as creative director Lily McGuinness, artfully create Stoppard’s eerie romantic style, full of odd speeches and stops and starts. Their production will draw an audience into the lives of these flawed and horny eccentrics, and their dramas over grouse and raspberry jam and hermits.

If you have something that you care about and know everything about it, then this play is for you. If you are still angry about the Library of Alexandria, or know all about the dancing plague of 1518, these weird academics will win over your heart with their own obsessions. For me, I felt represented as a vindicator of rich bastard Howard Carter, who left Tutankhamun’s mummy out in the sun. 

As for the secret you go home with, you’ll get it in the very last moments of the play. It’s pure magic. Arcadia will run until March 18th at the Cellar Theatre.

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