The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2019
A drama of debate, with
characters fighting over issues that really matter to them, is always
welcome, even if, like David Hare's 1986 play, it too infrequently rises
beyond intellectual exercise to real human drama.
There is a lot to think about
and there are strong acting roles, and that should be enough, though you
can't help wishing the play made you care about the characters more.
Set in Leningrad in the
1950s, the play introduces us to an artist who is out-of-fashion because
she won't do Soviet Realism. She was once a student (and, it is implied,
possibly mistress) of Henri Matisse, and has been summoned from obscurity
to authenticate or reject a newly-acquired painting that may be Matisse's.
(Though it is never actually mentioned, the play's title is evidently the
painting's as well.)
But, while not wholly
irrelevant, the painting is really something of a McGuffin, just an excuse
to get certain people in the same room so they can talk about something
The artist and her
schoolteacher daughter are at the centre. The older woman has built her
life on making conscious choices, committing herself to them, and
stoically accepting the consequences. The daughter wants happiness, and is
willing to break commitments and change courses to get it.
Specifically, the daughter
wants to leave her husband for another man, but that too is something of a
McGuffin, because it is the abstract principles that are debated, not the
local application of them – the moral issue of how to live one's life.
Typically of Hare, the debate
is good, with positions clearly taken and passionately argued. Where he
falls short of the Shavian ideal here is that for too much of the play the
two women remain mouthpieces for the debating positions, engaging us
intellectually but too rarely making us feel.
Part of that is built into
the character of the older woman, with the always-exciting Penelope Wilton
forced to repress her natural charm to portray a women who has chosen to
make herself cold and unfeeling.
It is entirely to Wilton's
credit that we catch glimpses of the real woman behind the
self-constructed mask, in hints of what it has cost her to become the
As the daughter Ophelia
Lovibond has an easier job, since the younger woman wears her heart on her
sleeve and is fighting for her right to feel and follow her emotions.
But partly because the play
gives Wilton's character the best arguments and partly because Lovibond is
not quite up to sparring with the more experienced actress, her character
never gains enough of our respect to engage our sympathies.
There are two more
characters, played by Martin Hutson and David Rintoul, but they are
written as sounding boards and paper tigers for Wilton's character to talk
at or reject with disdain, and the actors can't do much more than serve
the play generously and self-effacingly.
There's a good and thought-provoking debate on issues that matter. There's Penelope Wilton. That may very well be enough. But if only we could care.
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