The world premiere of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1578-80) at the Harold Pinter Drama Studio is a bit like discovering Richard III buried under a municipal car park in Leicester. It’s an absurd and fabulous shock. The Studio has been magically transformed into an Elizabethan playhouse, and the tragi-comedy unfolds like a brand new Shakespeare play. The crucial qualifier is that Arcadia was composed by Sidney an entire decade before the Bard picked up his quill in earnest, and subsequently languished for 433 years mostly for want of a publisher.
Perhaps the biggest shock of all is how beautifully it works as a piece of theatre. The story, of course, is riddled with the usual unlikely pot holes. To avoid a catalogue of family disasters predicted by the Oracle, a pompous Duke Basilius locks up his daughters, hands his kingdom to an over-zealous Protector, and retires to the country to hide among the shepherds. This ingenious plan predictably brings the world crashing around his ears when two thrusting young royal princes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, arrive in Arcadia and disguise themselves as an Amazon and a shepherd to gain access to Basilius’s delicious daughters.
It’s the beginning of a startling medley of sexual and social reversals. Jonathan Moss’s poet-prince, Musidorus, comically slums it as a trainee goat herd in order to woo Emily Holt’s wonderfully brittle Pamela. And Molly McGeachin is a gender- shifting marvel when she turns from sword-slashing Pyrocles into a heart-slashing Amazon beauty so she can picklock her way into daughter number two’s bedroom. Confused? Not as much as Duke Basilius (Lewis Garvey) or his wife Gynecia (Grace Church) or indeed their daughter Philoclea (Poppy Pedder) who are so smitten by their Amazon guest that the trio end up on a balcony nuzzling her for sexual favours.
The unsettling genius of the piece is the way Sidney then proceeds to stick chilly fingers of revolt, adultery, and betrayal into this comic pudding. The last act is almost frozen in time and motion: a courtroom drama anchored magnificently by Michael Clarke as a frosty king whose duties include dispensing a toxic dose of justice on anyone who has survived all five acts. Here we see the splintering of two Elizabethan worlds: the comic utopia of sexual and social ambiguity crushed by the tragic world of political expediency, pithily captured by Chris White’s inquisitorial Protector who seeks to skewer the royal princes and their would-be brides like the vengeful Angelo in Measure for Measure.
What glues it together is pure acting nerve. There are moments when even the most fluent verse speakers are hard pushed to make sense of a plot with a peculiar talent for pulling the carpet from under its own feet. Here, the actors trust to music, plainsong, several superb medieval dance pieces, and some wonderful moments of deadpan stage business: ‘Alas, poor lute…’ hymns Pyrocles. The young and impressive ensemble of UEA actors take their comic cues from James Gault’s terrifically useless chief shepherd, Dametas, who excels at turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The remarkable feature of Anthony Gash’s adaptation is how intensely it rattles and sizzles with Shakespeare’s own pastoral themes and obsessions. You can scissor lines, characters, and entire scenes from this three hour fifty minute production and find their ghostly equal in almost every one of the Bard’s pastoral collection — including a fight to the death between Pyrocles and a balletic War-Horsey lion. Which begs the question of plunder: the chimes are too sweet to ignore. Arcadia is a rich and extraordinary theatrical ‘find’ in a stretch of the literary canon that many thought had been picked clean by scholars. It should be prized not only for the potential new light it throws upon Shakespeare’s source material, but for the scope and scale of its own towering ambition. Worth remembering, you saw it here first.