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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Line
Arcola Theatre November - December 2009

Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play turns a footnote to art history into the opportunity for a debate on the intentions, ideals and history of art, but one that is always couched in real and involving human terms.

In 1888 model and serial mistress-to-artists Suzanne Valadon showed some of her own drawings to established master Edgar Degas and was on her way to becoming the most successful woman artist of her time. Wertenbaker makes Valadon perhaps more of a protégéé and student of Degas than she actually was, in order to set up a string of comparisons and contrasts between the two.

Though they share a commitment to realism and purity of line, the playwright has Degas speak for discipline, craft and a sense of history while Valadon is the voice of freedom, self-expression and (perhaps paradoxically) the need to earn a living and thus be open to compromises and short-cuts.

(The title is thus a pun, referring both to the perfectly-drawn arm or back and to the continuity of artists that Degas feels a part of but Valadon has no time for.)

The encounters between the two over a period of three decades are set up by the playwright as implicit and sometimes explicit debates, always intellectually fascinating but also always clothed in the fully rounded and sympathetic characters themselves. Art really matters to both of them, though sometimes for different reasons, and because they care, we are guided to care as well.

The play briefly loses its focus in the second half as Valadon goes her independent way and their encounters are fewer. Wertenbaker tries to fill the gap by fleshing out the characters more fully, placing Degas' sense of artistic tradition into the context of his political conservatism and anti-Semitism. But the sequence plays like a digression, as does the catalogue of Valadon's lovers and the travails of her son Maurice Utrillo.

Even the portrayal of Degas' physical and mental decline with age, as touching as it is - and the suggestion that he turned to sculpture because he could no longer see to draw but could still feel the desired lines with his fingers is deeply moving - seems to come out of some other play.

As always, Henry Goodman gives a performance of intense intelligence and passion as Degas, carrying the play over its occasional lapses with the unwavering reality of his characterisation. As Valadon, Sarah Smart is strongest in the earlier scenes. She brilliantly acts with her eyes, flashing every emotional shift of the mercurial young woman, and it is only the fact that the character becomes more settled with maturity that limits the actress's opportunity to do as much with her in the later scenes.

And as always, Selina Cadell, playing Degas' dedicated housekeeper and gatekeeper, gives a performance of subtle and understated generosity, serving the play and the others without calling attention to herself.

Director Matthew Lloyd earns credit for drawing such rounded and emotive performances from the cast, and for manoeuvring them skilfully through an in-the-round staging on William Dudley's appropriately messy artist's studio set.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Line - Arcola 2009