New End Theatre, London NW3
Opened 21 January, 1999

"Dear Diary: met the Pope today seems an amiable old fellow. Also, seem to have developed consumption." All right, this is a gross parody of both Marie Bashkirtseff's diaries and Carlo Ardito's play based on them, but... within the last three months we have seen Saving Charlotte (about Charlotte Salomon), The Snow Palace (Stanislawa Przybyszewska) and now Brief Candle; might we perhaps, please, have a temporary moratorium on plays about little-known, obsessive, young female artists?

As Ardito's narrator admits at the close of the play, Bashkirtseff was a promising but (thanks to TB) professionally untried singer, a fairly skilled painter and something of a beauty, but her reputation rests almost entirely on the posthumous publication of her prodigious journals 103 volumes by her death in 1884 at age 24. These reveal the young "Riviera Russian"'s determination to be remembered for, well, something or other pretty great: at age four she thought she would marry the Tsar and achieve social reform, at age 13 marry the Duke of Hamilton and become notorious in society, her last months she divided between planning to win the Prix de Rome for art and corresponding pseudonymously with Guy de Maupassant.

It was a life filled with promise, but promise unrealised, and although pleasant enough, neither Ardito's piece nor Stella Quilley's production can escape this sense that it really consists of a prolonged yet unfinished overture to an actual life. The show's selling point is the involvement of Quilley's husband Denis as narrator (and in miscellaneous male roles ranging from Marie's father to King Victor Emmanuel II by way of His Holiness). Denis Quilley is, of course, a skilled actor, but seems here simply to be taking it easy before his next major season at the National more like a gentle motor across the Downs than any arduous theatrical trek. He treats the audience as friends at an after-dinner entertainment, allows gentle fun to be poked at his comfortable girth, and at one point even playfully twirls his false mustachios.

Elsewhere, the play relies on similarly knowing touches to elicit complacent, ironic smirks from the audience, as when Marie a champion of representation in art speaks of the Impressionist trend towards "painting by patches in my opinion, a grave mistake." Moreover, surely all playwrights are now aware of the pitfalls of the historical-drama syndrome summed up in the line "Hello, Chopin my, that's a nasty cough." Yet Ardito delights in including "whoops, exposition!" references to things like "the new sect they're calling Communism", and actually (oh, joy!) does introduce Marie's incipient consumption by having another character remark that "The girl has a very nasty cough". As with the other plays mentioned above, Brief Candle is a fairly agreeable way to pass a couple of hours, but hardly compelling in its subject matter... and I very much fear that there will be another one along in a few minutes.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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