Arcadia: A time-travelling comedy to challenge the intellect

Dakota Blue Richards is enchanting (Photograph: Mark Douet)
Dakota Blue Richards is enchanting (Photograph: Mark Douet)

Goodness me. That Tom Stoppard isn't half clever.

Goodness me. That Tom Stoppard isn't half clever.

(Photograph: Mark Douet)

(Photograph: Mark Douet)

One of the most cerebral and celebrated of playwrights, Stoppard always plays with difficult subject matter that never underestimates the intelligence of the audience.

Arcadia - which is opening a nationwide tour at the Theatre Royal, the first since its original production 20 years ago - is one the densest in terms of subject matter: Fermat's Last Theorem, thermodynamics, algorithms, and the difficult blurring of the dichotomies created by chaos theory and deterministic philosophy.

It is definitely not a common-o'-garden comedy. Indeed, there are elements of real tragedy. And the laughs originate in the brain rather than the belly.

The play, widely regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century, demands a lot. And, at first viewing, it does not appear always to give as much back. On subsequent reflection, however, there is much to ponder.

On Tuesday night - press night for the national media - I bumped into an acquaintance who was seeing it for the second time in its week-long run in Brighton. Which suggests a recommendation, albeit tinged with some reservation.

There is a lot to get to grips with in a play that, with one interval, runs for well over two hours. And which, in the same English country-house setting, skips back and forth between the early 19th century and the modern day.

A complicated plot - if that is the right word - centres on Lord Byron's posited but unproven role in a deathly duel and the theories of Bernard Nightingale, a 20th-century career-minded academic (so typical of Stoppard); Robert Cavanah gives a standout performance of this media-obsessed don who tries to make the tiniest facts fit a theory - any theory - that can grab the attention of his peers. Dakota Blue Richards is beautifully enchanting as Thomasina Coverly.

Blanche McIntyre, a young director bubbling with promise, clearly has a passion for a play that she says makes you think and makes you cry: "The ideas are dazzling and Arcadia trusts the audience to understand them."

It certainly does. And for that reason alone, it is certainly worth seeing (possibly twice!).

Although I still couldn't help thinking that, however rewarding, Stoppard might sometimes expect too much. That he can, occasionally, be too clever by half.

Arcadia continues at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday, February 7; it then goes on tour to until April to: Theatre Royal, Bath; Churchill Theatre, Bromley; New Victoria, Woking; Aylesbury Waterside; Hall for Cornwall, Truro; Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre; Cambridge Arts Theatre; Malvern Theatre; and the Oxford Playhouse.