“Mine eyes dazzle,” wrote 17th century dramatist John Webster in his finest play “The Duchess of Malfi.” In the case of Tom Stoppard’s finest play, “Arcadia,” it’s initially the ears that are dazzled as zinging dialogue dashes between centuries to create a marvel of a mystery. But emotional undercurrents gradually emerge. Or, rather, they should. Unsurprisingly, in the play’s first London revival, the dialogue zips along. But sadly, David Leveaux’s textureless production barely even hints at the crucial undertow.
Stoppard’s play is a brilliant twist on that hoariest of dramatic subjects: the country-house murder mystery. Except that, despite elaborate theorizing by 20th century literary academic Bernard Nightingale (Neil Pearson), it turns out there actually isn’t a body. At least, not the one he and rival researcher Hannah Jarvis (Samantha Bond) argue about during a research trip to the grand Coverly family pile.
Their daring conjectures and blind alleys about what happened there in 1809 are wittily contrasted with and contradicted by scenes populated by the historical characters under scrutiny. Their search for knowledge is paralleled by the relationship between young tutor Septimus (Dan Stevens) and pupil Thomasina (Jessie Cave), a 16-year-old prodigy.
Even in 1993, this academics-turned-detectives-in-twin-time period wasn’t new. Three years earlier A.S. Byatt’s best-selling novel “Possession” won the Booker prize playing almost an identical game. And Stoppard’s constant thriller-esque withholding of information is positively brazen. What little dramatic action “Arcadia” has comes in cryptic clues explained and secret documents conveniently rediscovered at just the right moment to solve the puzzle.
But what lifts the play way above being an intellectual “Da Vinci Code” is not just the wildly entertaining philosophical cut-and-thrust, but the way in which all that is gradually revealed to be the MacGuffin. “Arcadia” isn’t really about with what did or didn’t happen. Its real concern is the frightening closeness of genius and tragedy, the major breakthroughs and painfully human mistakes incurred in the quest for truth.
Effective though the performances are, most are one-dimensional. Bond’s brisk, physically taut Hannah certainly shows her reproving nature, but her rare flourishes of deeper feelings are too sign-posted to be affecting. A miscast Pearson exudes admirable energy as Bernard but he’s too loudly caricatured to be convincing. Stevens is the most ill-at-ease, either slumped and aloof or suddenly smoldering when required to be a sex object.
Stevens’ unflattering costume doesn’t help, and a similar problem afflicts Cave’s unchanging Thomasina. She wears authentic-looking fabric equal to the sprigged muslins beloved of Jane Austen, but it looks as if she’s in her nightgown, which infantilizes her.
The exception to all this is the commandingly no-nonsense Nancy Carroll as Lady Croom. Dauntless, willow-thin and terrifyingly funny, she strides about Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant, pale room like a sexy Lady Bracknell.
Lady Croom is not the lead role but Carroll’s performance amounts to a stealth attack and her energy drives every scene she’s in. Her exquisite timing of the play’s most Wildean lines lands as many character surprises and connections as it does laughs. This leads you to understand what’s missing elsewhere. The actors work hard but in isolation because Leveaux hasn’t dramatized the relationshjps. We hear the lines but not the play.
As both time periods finally and unexpectedly converge, the mystery and the mirrorings are solved only by the audience. It should be a purely theatrical moment poised between tragedy and the sweetness of completion. In this unatmospheric production, we watch the characters waltz together but their dilemmas feel too superficial, the music too twee and the lighting so insipid that the scene merely drains away.