Saturday, 13 November 2010

And now for something completely different....

A theatre review. Saw this a while back and it was great.

Tom Stoppard
Lowry Quays Theatre
Rating: 4/5

Way back when, I was dragged kicking and screaming (well, not exactly, I was 16; more like frowning and brooding) to a performance of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll at the Duke of York Theatre. As it turned out, the name was more than just a clever ploy to try and get uncultured ruffians like me into the theatre (if indeed that was their intent, they failed, for I recall the bar was largely composed of fortysomething academic types loudly debating communist ideology)- it genuinely was pretty rock 'n' roll- subversive, emotive, and, like all the best songs, pleasurable enough to make you want to repeat the experience.

After that I was a fan, and caught his excellent earlier work Arcadia sometime later (again at the Duke of York, oddly enough); in its clever juxtaposition of classical and romantic themes within individual time frames and across the course of the narrative (around 1809 to the present), it certainly trumped Rock 'n' Roll for symbolism and metaphor, but I wasn't sure if it trumped it for substance.

So, off the boring stuff and onto a review- from having seen the play before, was the Library Theatre company's production any good? In a word, yes. In two words, yes, outstanding. Whilst Samantha Bond clearly played the character of Hannah (characterized as a sceptic female academic with intimacy issues) better in the recent Duke of York production, it's hard to say whether Neil Pearson's cold arrogance or James Wallace's brilliant wild-eyed, sexual predator was the better turn as historian Bernard Nightingale. Charlie Anson's Septimus Hodge was the perfect balance of mischievous and serious where the plot required, and Beth Park deserves a mention for her potrayal of the deceptively girlish Thomasina, Septimus' charge.

The play itself is a complicated blend of historical drama and a second setting whereby the events of the 'present' (1809 to around 1814) are examined by modern historians, trying to uncover whether or not Lord Byron fought a lethal duel in the grounds of the manor during a flying visit in April 1809. The sub-plot to the essential dichotomy of Classicism and Romanticism is the setting of academic disciplines such as history against the sciences; in the most dramatic scene Nightingale rubbishes four years of work by the mathematician Valentine, causing him to abandon his efforts. The sub-sub-plot (and, I think, possibly the most interesting) is that of the child-savant Thomasina happening upon the idea of the Heat Death after seeing a Newcomen steam engine, and applying her experimentation with iteration to it.

I'm not going to ruin any more of the plot, but simply say that it's a beautiful, moving play. More than this, it's essential for any humanities student who lives with scientists (smug bastards), or scientist who lives with humanities students (after all, as Valentine points out, the Second Law of Thermodynamics does render Byron fighting a duel in 1809 as “trivial”). There aren't many plays as intellectually challenging, and few with as moving a final vignette as a mathematician devoting the rest of his life to save the universe with “good English algebra”. Close to perfection.

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