The Theatreguide.London Review
Bay At Nice
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
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.
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.
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 stoic.
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
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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