Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 23 November, 2009

Timberlake Wertenbaker has written before about the art world, in Three Birds Alighting On A Field, and her best-known play Our Country’s Good is bedded in specifics of history. But put the two together, and the result feels far less sure of foot. Literally so: on several occasions on the press night, actors backed into one another or threatened to overturn easels as well as fluffing some lines. No single moment was significant, but the cumulative effect was to suggest that Matthew Lloyd’s production is somewhat uncertain of itself.
The play is a three-hander between the painter Degas, his housekeeper and Suzanne Valadon, his sometime pupil, on-off friend and, the play suggests, unconsummated beloved. Wertenbaker portrays a telling contrast between Degas, ever self-denying in his quest for artistic perfection and keenly conscious of his place in a lineage of artists, and Valadon who pursued both life and art with a hunger bordering on impatience. He is a bourgeois from a banking family, she grew up more or less on the streets of Montmartre. The district is almost a character in its own right, but alas not a convincing one. The play is historically accurate in mentioning Valadon’s affairs with Toulouse-Lautrec, Miguel Utrillo (their son Maurice being the more famous artist to bear that surname) and Erik Satie, but it feels as if she were merely a dramatic device to enable a lot of name-dropping. A similar clanging note is sounded in the first scene after the interval, as Degas and housekeeper Zoe discuss Zola’s first newspaper article in defence of Captain Dreyfus: it may allow a portrayal of Degas’s fervent, unquestioning patriotism, but it reinforces the suspicion that this is little more than a dramatisation of the Cliff Notes to 1890s Paris. When Degas later asks, “Is it my eyes or is darkness descending over Europe?”, we know it must be 1914.
Henry Goodman’s eyes glitter with the puritanical zeal of the dedicated artist as Degas; Selina Cadell is largely unyielding, with significant moments of exception, as Zoe; and Sarah Smart as Suzanne largely succeeds in keeping the shrillness out of her voice as her character speaks passionately about, well, pretty much everything. But Wertenbaker’s play, although it draws a chronological line, is strangely shy of the assured artistic penmanship to which the title refers.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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