Alycia Smith-Howard: Visions of Arcadia
PUBLISHED: 01:16 25 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:45 20 February 2013
Playing Stoppard's indefatigable Lady Croom prompted Alycia Smith-Howard to take a look at the Warwickshire works of Capability Brown.
One of my all-time favourite dramatic rles and the last one I performed on stage in America is that of Lady Croom, the indefatigable, mistress of Sidley Park (a fictional country estate in rural, 19th century Derbyshire), who appears in Tom Stoppards Arcadia.
Apart from her sumptuous costumes, all designed in figure-forgiving Regency Empire style, what I loved most about Lady Croom was her very Britishness, her panache and no-nonsense attitude. Lady Croom likes what she likes. Full Stop. In Act I, she bounds onto the stage in the throes of a heated debate with her landskip gardener, Mr. Noakes. Noakes has ambitions of transforming Lady Crooms beloved formal garden into the very picture of the new Gothic aesthetic. Lady Croom, a neoclassist to her core, is outraged:
But Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture too. The slopes are green and gentle. The trees are companionably grouped at intervals that show them to advantage. The rill is a serpentine ribbon unwound from the lake, peaceably contained by meadows on which the right amount of sheep are tastefully arranged in short, it is nature as God intended Et in Arcadia ego! Here I am in Arcadia!
With Stoppards sparkling dialogue as our guide, my fellow actors and I attempted to transport our selves from our dank rehearsal studio to the lush, idyllic, English landscape he evokes so magically. To aid our imaginations, the production dramaturg gave a presentation on the work of Lancelot Capability Brown (1716-83) hero of Lady Croom, and the antithesis of Mr. Noakes.
Capability Brown is unrivalled as Englands greatest gardener. It is estimated that he was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain: Blenheim Palace, Harewood House, Bowood House and Milton Abbey, to name but a few. Brown left an unmistakable imprint on many remarkable sites in Warwickshire, notably Charlecote Park, Warwick Castle, Coombe Abbey, Packington House, Newnham Paddocks, Compton Wynyates, and Compton Verney.
The beautiful Compton Verney, with its this magnificent setting, long winding stretch of water, and abundance of fine trees and intimate footpaths, displays Capability Browns work at its breathtaking best. As one of my most treasured Warwickshire destinations, it is a landscape into which I enjoy losing myself regularly albeit without Regency costume.
Apart from being an ideal locale for re-enacting a few frolicking, Lady Croom fantasies, Compton Verney is also the perfect location for the first-ever exhibition on the life and genius of Capability Brown. The aims of this major exhibition are to highlight Browns landscape design in the Midlands; to explore how he responded to technological advances in shooting and carriage-making to create his neoclassical arcadias; and how he addressed the enormous task of moving tons of earth and creating hills, vales and lakes in an age before tractors or JCBs!
I can but wonder how much more in-depth my portrayal of Lady Croom might have been had I the opportunity to be more intimately and sensually aware of the incredible landscapes she held so dear, and the great man who inspired and created them. Thankfully, I have the opportunity now - Et in Arcadia ego!
Capability Brown and the landscapes of Middle England Exhibition runs through the summer until October 2 at Compton Verney, Warwickshire. CV35 9HZ
Tel: 01926 645500 or visit