Just got back from a short holiday in New York… What is it about that place? I just wander round taking pictures on rubbish disposable cameras not really doing anything much, and not wanting to go and see anything and I love it. My personal favourite parts of town are Lower East Side and down Tribeca way, via Canal Street with all the weird tacky shops. (Though a brief trip to Williamsburg this time suggested it was another really good place to hang around in for future trips.)
My best find this time was, I think, somewhere on Rivington. We were walking back from dinner and walked past this window on a lower ground bit, down below the street. Inside there were loads of cats in the window on various shelves, sprawled out, including some tiny, tiny little kittens.
I once saw this nasty pet shop uptown near the Whitney Museum, which had puppies for sale all asleep in the window and at first I thought it was one of those. But there was a sign explaining: it was a pet rescue centre. It was amazing: about twenty cats, some in the window, some in cages or on the floor all stretched out, warm and fast asleep, and beside the cats two or three dogs doing the same. No fighting or whining, just all sleeping peaceably together.
Anyway, I got back from NYC at 6am. Because I don’t travel a lot I always find the ensuing jetlag a curious thing. Sometimes I just feel plain sick; sometimes I get very over-emotional – in fact, I always get emotional on planes, most embarrassingly when I have openly wept over appalling films that aren’t even sad: the hideously dumb (whilst thinking it was clever) and terribly acted Match Point and that Jennifer Lopez classic, Angel Eyes spring to mind as my most shameful tearful episodes always next to bemused fellow travellers whom I don’t know. Sometimes, however, I get into this exhilarated hyperactive mood where everything seems ridiculously good, although I am dimly aware that this feeling balances precariously on feeling gloomy.
Landing in Heathrow this time, I really didn’t know which way it would go, having been kept awake all night by a screaming child whose parents refused to tell her to shut up out of misplaced politeness to a four-year-old rather than the 100s of sleepless people in the rest of the plane.
Turns out, and it was a surprising result, it was the last option & so I tripped giddily down to the Duke of York in St Martin’s Lane to see Arcadia the next evening. Heck, even a Piccadilly line full of Gooners couldn’t spoil my mood – see what I mean about hyperactive cheerfulness?
So perhaps it was my jetlag… but I don’t think so. It was one of the most enjoyable nights at the theatre for a long time. Beautiful set, fantastically cast, and the play is really the thing. Yes, it’s Stoppard, you have to concentrate… but it’s Stoppard without his voice booming in your ear going on about how wonderfully clever he is. It’s funny, it’s full of joie de vivre, and I find it moving. It’s a wonderful play.
The play is set in one location – at a large table in a room in the country estate of Sidley Park. The action takes place, however, at two different times, 180 years apart: 1809 and 1989. In 1809 we see a brilliant young tutor, Septimus Hodge, teaching his even more brilliant pupil, the precocious thirteen-year-old Thomasina. In 1989 we find Hannah Jarvis, an academic working on a book about the gardens and the hermit that lived and died there, having gone insane and only leaving reams and reams of calculations on paper, and the son of the house and maths whiz, Valentine, occupying the earlier characters’ places. A comedy of errors unfolds across the two eras, as well as an exploration of the nature of time, fate and history.
Lurking in the background in 1809, the figure that history and scholarship will remember, Lord Byron, is a school and university friend of Septimus’s though he never appears on stage. Ironically, he is the main topic in 1989 when an arrogant scholar Nightingale visits Sidley Park and creates an entirely logical academic “discovery” partly based on fact and partly on perfectly reasonable supposition. His folly, of course, constantly being underlined by the scenes from 1809 that comically reveal that all his ideas and assumptions are entirely wrong. Stoppard is always reminding us that truth is not a fixed ideal… it changes with every tiny nuance of human behaviour. An equation that works for one second of reality, must be changed for the next.
The play deals with some fairly big topics (!): sex & death; fate vs free will; innocence vs experience; chaos theory vs determinism; classicism vs romanticism. It is also a brilliant satire on scholarship and the futility of knowledge as well as, paradoxically, a celebration of the search and desire for knowledge.
It’s about structure – can you plot the shape of a leaf using equations and does it matter? Chaos seems to rule, yet the play itself is perfectly constructed and its own form demonstrates that it’s not necessarily what, but how, that ends up counting.
The cast includes Samantha Bond, Dan Stevens, and Neil Pearson, excellently cast as the slimy scholar, Bernard Nightingale, as well as an very good turn from Jesse Cave as Thomasina. If you can find the free will to tear yourself away from whatever it is you should be doing, I really recommend you go and see this…