Shaw Festival’s “real” Arcadia

Et in Arcadia ego. And in Arcadia am I. And “at” Arcadia I was truly yesterday when I saw a matinee of a production of this Tom Stoppard masterwork at the Studio Theatre of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This production directed by Eda Holmes cleverly unfolded the actual and the fictional to present a frisson of the “real” in a concluding coup de theatre.

[ALERT: This blog contains spoilers. Read on at your own risk.]

From the first, I was engaged and perplexed by the choice to have the audience enter the space through a door leading into the backstage area. We passed behind the set and in front of a blue sky painted drop. In this area, I noticed a piano with music on it (I assumed for the offstage piano at Sidley Park), rubber boots in a props cubby with masking tape labelled “Rubber Boots.” I noticed that the sky drop was rather wrinkly at the bottom and not stretched or weighted. (It is bad of me but I notice things like that). Then ushers directed us through the upstage French doors and onto the set. Skirting around the centrally placed table and chairs we crossed the painted floor and climbed the risers to our seats. Then when seated we could watch the remainder of the audience also file through the doors, entering the theatre from the backstage, but also entering the salon at Sidley Park from the garden beyond.

At the intermission, we were given a choice of exiting the house via the same route we entered — across the stage and through the French doors to the backstage space/garden and into the lobby — or we could descend stairs at the back of the audience riser seating and likewise out into the lobby by an alternate set of doors. This choice told me that the guided entrance through backstage was a deliberate shaping of our experience and not a practical necessity.

After the last bow of the curtain call, the sky drop was pulled up to reveal the back wall of the theatre. Two large doors had been opened and through them we could see into the park that surrounds the theatre. Rolling grass, a large tree in full leaf and the blue sky beyond. A beautiful summer’s day. (Real grass! Look! A real tree! Oh! The real sky!) And in that moment, the ordinary day and the ordinary park (where we just spent the intermission) becomes transcendent. It is truly an Arcadian ideal landscape.

The cast turned around to dance themselves out through this portal and across the grass. When the house lights came up, the audience picked its way down from the risers, across the stage/salon and we too exited into the park and the sunshine.

The thematic implications of giving us this multisensory phenomenological frisson of the real are several. First, there is the reminder of the wonder and joy of Thomasina’s discovery that the world reveals itself in numbers. The beauty of a leaf or a tree and the wonderment of the complex mathematical patterns of nature. We are seeing the grass, and the leaves and the weather through fresh (refreshed?) eyes. This refreshing effect is generated by the layering of reality and fictional constructions. We are primed by being shown the “fakery” of the set from behind, reinforcing our sense of pretend from the start. But this quickly gives way under theatrical transformation to the “provisionally real” world of Sidley Park. Then Sidley Park is shown up at the end to be a pale illusion. Again it is a kind of fake, but this time it (worldB) is exposed not by revealing its mode of creation (the worldA of the theatre building) but by contrasting it with Creation (the worldA of the World). The painted expressionistic sky cloth fades against the vivid depth of the sky itself. By working through these perceptual shifts of “actual” and “fictional,” our final encounter with the “actual” (which we unthinkingly live in everyday) becomes something remarkable.

[I would be interested to hear from other audience members who saw the play at night. Around 10:30pm last night, I skulked around the back of the Studio Theatre to see what I could see. What I did see were two floodlights mounted to a stand — one lighting up a swath of grass in front of the closed stage doors and the other illuminating the large tree. So clearly this effect is intended day or night. But is it as effective at night with the artificial illumination?]

Second, I think, there is, in this particular manicured landscape, a sense of time rewound, a return not to untamed Edenic nature but to the garden of Capability Brown, to Lady Croom’s vision of Arcadia before “Culpability” Noakes and his steam pump engine redesign the park into a Romantic image of the untamed wilderness. Again these competing visions connect to the perceptual oscillation of the real and the fictional. Noakes’ garden is a kind of theatrical fake — ruins where no building ever stood — presenting a “set” of a picturesque world. But then again Lady Croom’s garden is just a different kind of fictional vision of an ideal landscape — this one with just the right number of sheep dotted on the hillside. Even though Thomasina’s mathematical discoveries are anachronistic, I want to suggest that the break between the Arcadian landscape of Lady Croom and the Romantic gothic landscape imposed by Noakes represents the break between classical Newtonian physics and the Picasso-esque equations of iterative chaos theory that Thomasina prefigures. The move back to the Newtonian garden at the end of the play rewinds time to a moment before the fall, before Thomasina’s death in the fire, and before Septimus’ resulting descent into madness. An interesting idea then to rewind time here since as Thomasina points out you can’t stir the jam back out of the pudding.

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