Has there ever been a great play about an artist? I rack my brains to think of one. In the meantime, Timberlake Wertenbaker avoids the obvious pitfalls to produce a decent, if somewhat undramatic, work about the master- pupil relationship between Degas and Suzanne Valadon. I learned a lot, but my pulse never raced.
Wertenbaker's play, covering the years from 1888 to 1917, starts promisingly enough. The hypo-chondriac Degas, fiercely protected by his loyal housekeeper, finds his space invaded by the impetuous Suzanne. He admires her drawings, teaches her the techniques of soft-ground etching, and seeks to instil in her the virtues of discipline and concentration. But over the years their platonic, Pygmalion-like relationship is eroded by several factors: her hectic love life; her singular artistic talent; her concern for her wayward son, Maurice, who took his father's name of Utrillo. The desiccated Degas ends up famous but lonely, while Suzanne blazes on without achieving the same renown.
It's a good story, but there is a contradiction in the way Wertenbaker tells it. On the one hand, she sees Valadon as a victim of the pressures that have always penalised female painters. As Suzanne says of Degas: "He has the permission of society to be an artist, I'm a woman." Against that, Wertenbaker follows Germaine Greer's line that Suzanne radiated "a lawless sexual energy", and discovers in her an embodiment of the life force denied to the austere Degas. In the end, the play poses an old question: is it worth sacrificing life to art? But, while Werternbaker implies not, she also wants us to see Suzanne and Degas's housekeeper as women expected to sacrifice themselves to the male ego.
The play also suffers a structural problem: Suzanne changes while Degas essentially doesn't. Henry Goodman overcomes that obstacle, in a masterly display of technique, by focusing on Degas's fitful moments of passion, his rhapsodic devotion to line, his love of new cameras with panchromatic plates, and his absurd Gallic patriotism. Sarah Smart embodies all the anarchic youthful vitality of the free-loving, if maternally anxious, Suzanne, and Selina Cadell perfectly captures the watchful loyalty of the housekeeper whose devotion enabled Degas to work.
Matthew Lloyd's production is illuminated by William Dudley's design, which creates a kaleidoscopic evocation of 19th-century French art. Everything is civilised, instructive, meticulous. But, while I've seen many worse plays about artists, Wertenbaker's fictional Three Birds Alighting On a Field was far more exciting in its portrait of the redemptive power of painting.
Until 12 December. Box office: 020-7503 1646.
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Guardian: The Line | Theatre review
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