Old Red Lion Theatre
St John Street, EC1V 4NJ
Artist Descending a Staircase, Old Red Lion, London – The Independent Review
Why were we told that Tom Stoppard first wrote with emotion, rather than just cleverness, in The Real Thing?
At least, that was how the play was promoted in New York when I, then living there, interviewed its dashing young star, Jeremy Irons, in 1984. Twelve years before, however, a British radio audience heard a play that had enough feeling choked behind its stiff upper lip to dampen their eyes. And now, in Artist Descending a Staircase, Irons’s son Max, who did not exist until a year after our talk, acts in a manner so painful and sweet as to make the romantic young and the regretful old pay him tribute with their tears.
This stage version was originally seen in 1988, when it was criticised for being explicit and heavy-handed where the original was delicate and sensitive. I can only say that this one, shuffling time sequences like a stacked deck, full of emotional collisions and near-misses and light-as-air symbolism of the closeness of life and death, is more than sensitive enough for me.
There is also, of course, plenty of characteristic Stoppard playfulness (an artist talks about meeting Tarzan when he means Tristan Tzara, of having danced with a woman at Queen Mary’s wedding – “no, maiden voyage”) and waspish wit. Modern painters, says a traditional one, are “like priests – they demand our faith that something is more than it appears to be – bread, wine, a can of soup.”
The play opens with two artists, Martello and Beauchamp, who have shared a studio with Donner for 60 years, discovering his body at the foot of the stairs. A tape recorder captured his last words: “Ah, there you are.” Who was the visitor, and did he give the old man a push? Trying to solve the riddle, the two re-enact ancient quarrels and rivalries but miss, until the last seconds, what is literally under their noses.
Michael Gieleta’s production is beautifully judged and cast. David Weston and Jeremy Child as the old Martello and Beauchamp, Ryan Gage and Alex Robertson as their young selves are all impeccable. But the highest honours go to Irons, as the young Donner to Edward Petherbridge’s fierce, flinty old one; and to Olivia Darnley as the beautiful blind girl who tragically shows that, when it comes to love, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
Artist Descending a Staircase – The Guardian UK Review
An elderly painter, Donner, lies dead at the bottom of a staircase while his two studio colleagues argue over the milk order and which one of them is the murderer. Nothing is quite what it seems in Tom Stoppard’s jolly jape, a ridiculously enjoyable look at memory, love and the arbitrary patterns of life.
Even the deft structure of the play, with its 11 scenes moving initially backwards and then forwards in time, is a joke on Duchamps’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Providing you don’t take the curmudgeonly pronouncements on artistic endeavour to heart, there’s much to give pleasure in this 90-minute piece that is not so much a whodunit as a riff on “how do you see it?”.
The trio of artists in question are Donner, Martello and Beauchamp, three former artistic pranksters who in their youth throw in their lot with the surrealists, but whose real passion is for the beautiful Sophie. Although blind, she is rather more perceptive than the three of them put together. Even so, the unreliability of memory plays a part in the tragedy that unfolds and reverberates down the years. Michael Gieleta’s revival of the play, originally written for radio but transferred seamlessly to the stage, makes a virtue of the cramped space.
It seems odd not to cast a blind actor as Sophie, but that’s not to discredit Olivia Darnley’s performance. And Edward Petherbridge and Max Irons excel as the older and younger Donner, a man destined to see the truth too late.
Artist Descending a Staircase – Whatsonstage Review
Venue: Old Red Lion
Where: Inner London
Date Reviewed: 8 December 2009
WOS Rating: * * *
When Tom Stoppard wrote his 1972 BBC play Artist Descending a Staircase, it “had to be” for radio, he says. He subsequently backed down, adding stage directions for a 1988 production mounted at the King’s Head Theatre. And 20 years later, the play returns to Islington, this time for a month’s run at the Old Red Lion. The question is: does it actually work in the theatre?
A murder mystery turned commentary on modern art, it opens with the sound of artist Donner (Stoppard veteran Edward Petherbridge) falling down the stairs of his attic studio – as it turns out, to his death. The incident has been caught on tape by his friend Beauchamp (Jeremy Child), himself an audio-artist, who subsequently points the finger at a third friend, Martello (David Weston) who shares the studio with the other two. Did Donner fall or was he pushed – and if so, by whom and for what reason?
These are the questions that push the play forward, or rather back, as scene by scene, Stoppard rewinds the tape to 1914 when, as adolescents, the three friends find their glorified gap year – a walking trip through France – rudely interrupted by the start of WW1. Both they and the narrative are forced to turn round again but at the centre of their life and art remains beautiful blind girl Sophie (played by a spirited and sensitive Olivia Darnley). And in typically Stoppardian fashion, the play goes on to combine an intellectual discussion of the nature of art with bittersweet observations on love.
Alex Robertson, Ryan Gage and Max Irons are believably cast as the older men’s younger selves, with Irons and Petherbridge in particular projecting the same lyrical melancholy of Donner’s unrequited love, unshaken despite the passing of years. Nevermind his few lines – the younger actor makes even the removal of a scarf completely heartbreaking. But while the veterans have much opportunity for joshing – especially during anecdotes of the great and good of 20th-century art – they are at times a little loose in their banter, dulling some of the writer’s sharper witticisms. The scene jumps also make for some clunky lighting and sound cues, a problem a radio production surely would not face.
Artist Descending a Staircase is not Stoppard’s most sophisticated play, nor is this a perfect production. But just as it contains seeds of his later greatness, it also heralds some exciting new talent in Irons and Darnley. The baton has been passed – and movingly so.
– by Nancy Groves
Artist Descending on a Staircase is testament to youth – Evening Standard Review
* * * Fiona Mountford’s Rating
By Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard 07.12.09
It’s always heartening to see a fringe theatre packed to bursting point. It’s even more pleasing to report that those lured by this Tom Stoppard curio, which fizzes with Stoppard’s customary wit and erudition as he riffs mischievously about modern art, are going to go away largely contented with the quality of the production, too.
Those who encountered Artist as a 1972 radio play — it was first staged in 1988 — must have had to concentrate mighty hard as, even with the performers in front of us, it’s tough to get a handle on who Beauchamp, Martello and Donner are, and quite why we should care that Donner has plunged to a staircase-induced death.
In a slip-sliding of scenes, the three elderly artists, who share an attic studio, comment acerbically on each other’s work and make constant reference to “Sophie”. We’re mildly intrigued but predominantly frustrated that crucial sparkiness is missing from the performances.
It says much for the quality of the younger actors (Ryan Gage, Max Irons and Alex Robertson) playing the trio that, once we’re transported back to 1914, things settle pleasingly into focus in Michael Gieleta’s slick production.
Pursuing crazy Dada-esque projects — the sound recording of a pretend ping-pong match, for example — the friends all fall for Sophie (Olivia Darnley), a witty young blind woman who enjoys pricking their pretensions.
Darnley, with the face of a puzzled cherub, does a terrific job of fixing the narrative with a steady centre, and Gage’s affability is particularly appealing.
The blending of art and romance in some scenes isn’t perfect, but it’s hard not to smile at a drama that offers the tea-sweetening option of dunking a mini Venus de Milo made from sugar. If the old ’uns could sharpen up a little, this would be cracking.
Until 31 December (08444 771 000, www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk).
Artist Descending a Staircase at Old Red Lion, London, N1December 5, 2009
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Tom Stoppard has said that a line in his Travesties often provoked an appreciative mutter in the stalls. But it first appeared, slightly altered, in his 1972 radio play Artist Descending a Staircase: “In every community of a thousand souls there will be 900 doing the work, 90 doing well, nine doing good and one lucky dog painting or writing about the other 999.” How can creative people justify their privileged existence? What’s the use of their art? Aren’t their lives self-indulgent in a perilous world?
In Travesties, questions that have always worried that principled writer, Tom Stoppard, assume special importance when Lenin declares that artists are useful only when they subordinate themselves to communist need. In Artist Descending the First World War raises the same concerns.
Three young friends, all artists, are trekking through France in 1914 when armoured vehicles pass and men begin to dig what one insists must be a ditch for pipes, not a trench for men. Only when gunfire is followed by explosions does he revise his first opinion, which is that a European war is impossible, by saying that “these continentals are always squabbling over their frontiers”.
It’s the play’s most entertaining scene and it brings together several of its themes. Aren’t artists prone to get cut off from reality? And isn’t it hard to interpret reality anyway? This last question, one asked again and again in Stoppard’s work, pervades Artist Descending. Why has Donner, the painter played by Edward Petherbridge, ended up dead at the bottom of the stairs to the attic that he shares with David Weston’s Martello, a sculptor, and Jeremy Child’s Beauchamp, who is into “audio art”? Which of his old friends has murdered him or could there be another explanation?
Yes, there’s a very different explanation, as we later discover. Likewise with the death years ago of the blind girl, Olivia Darnley’s Sophie, who continues to obsess all three. Whom did she really love and why? Stoppard whisks us to and fro through time, allowing old Donner, Martello and Beauchamp and Max Irons, Alex Robertson and Ryan Gage playing their younger, more hopeful selves to debate issues galore about art and artists.
By bringing the play to the stage Michael Gieleta’s revival loses something. On radio the audience, being presented with often ambiguous sounds faced the same challenge as the characters. What signifies what?
The greater clarity a visual production brings doesn’t sink a play that has its dull patches but, like so much Stoppard, genuinely stretches the mind.
Artist Descending a Staircase
By Tom Stoppard
Old Red Lion Theatre
Review by Corinne Salisbury (2009)
Tom Stoppard’s tricksy play was originally written for radio and first broadcast in 1972: you can imagine the specific appeal that this meditation on blindness and imagination would have had for a radio audience. Written with a specific conceit which centres on the audience being denied the ability to see the action, it inevitably loses something in a visual staging. Nonetheless it’s engagingly performed and manages to add a few nice moments of non-verbal interaction; and it cannot help but keep the joys of the Stoppardian verbal magic.
Beauchamp (pronounced Beecham), Martello and Donner are three elderly artists who have lived and worked together for the past sixty years. They grumble, reminisce, and bicker about who stole whose marmalade. This comfortable existence is somewhat disrupted when Donner dies mysteriously, falling down the stairs that lead up to their garret. The event has been accidentally recorded on the tape machine that Beauchamp had left running in order to capture the incidental noises of an artist at work: his latest “soundscape” project. So Martello and Beauchamp listen to the sound of their friend’s fatality – two footsteps, a few mysterious words, then a crash and tumble – and meditate about what it all means.
The real story though is of the fatal occurrence in the friends’ youth. As bright young things in post-war London, they met and simultaneously fell for a beautiful young blind woman, Sophie. Having only recently lost her sight, she remembered having visited their exhibition not long previously and seen all three artists. She has a mental picture of all three faces, and on meeting them again, she tries to match face to artist from memory: each was photographed individually next to one of their paintings, and she remembers the photographs, so by identifying who painted each painting she can identify who is who. But has she misremembered? Does she have the wrong image in her mind? And if so, how would she ever find out?
Olivia Darnley is lovely as the sweet, witty and independently-minded Sophie, and the story of her ill-treatment by the men and eventual tragic end is very moving. The play, for all its witty verbiage, really comes down just to this small emotional kernel: the terrible sense that an entirely different story should have played out for her. It makes for a strange watching experience however: the play is structured on the basis that we are as blind as Sophie, putting us in the same position of uncertainty as she is, when she frequently faces the unresolvable mysteries of where things are and who people are, quite literally. To be able to see the action undercuts this original intention of the play; and, as with any staged radio play, there’s the slightly jarring element wherein the action is written into the dialogue, needlessly now as we can see what is happening and who is in the room. A good audio joke is lost when we watch the young Beauchamp clip-clopping a pair of coconut halves, Python-style, while gushing about his beautiful new horse: we’re not meant to be able to see that it’s make-believe.
The play is clever and it knows it – particularly on the subject of art. The young artists are swept up by Dadaism and all its headstrong artistic ideologies – namely that talent is meaningless if art is not revolutionary: “doing something well is no excuse for doing something predictable”. Their older selves are more sober, and you could say more clear-sighted; or you could say less brave. Donner has turned against modernism, railing against the “easy victories” of the avant garde, and arguing that modern art is like religion, “only sustained by faith”, a sham in which everyone is complicit. Again this all reflects back on the theme of blindness: whether, when looking at art, we all fill in the imaginative gaps, as Sophie does.
But the arguments, full of such immaculately phrased gems of opinions, feel somewhat contrived. I enjoyed more the interaction between the three young actors, the artists at the time before they have let art overtake life. Larking about in France during the outbreak of the first world war, having not yet heard the news, they’re somewhat perturbed and in denial about the sights around them. “They’re digging a ditch.” “It’s a trench.” “They’re laying pipes!” The purpose of art in a time of war, or after war, is another theme Stoppard lightly touches on.
Alex Robertson does well as the cheeky, cocky younger Beauchamp, and Max Irons (son of Jeremy) beautifully suggests the younger Donner’s wells of unspoken melancholy. It’s no detriment to them that I often wanted to watch with my eyes closed.
Review of Artist Descending a Staircase, Tom Stoppard * * * *
“Witty, creative production. Intimate venue”
by P Umachandran for remotegoat on 07/12/09
The quiet lives of three elderly bachelor artists is punctured by the sudden death of one of their number, Donner, and is captured on the recording equipment of another, Beauchamp. Tom Stoppard’s ‘Artist Descending A Staircase’ begins with this whodunit scenario which unravels to reveal wider concerns. Flashbacks pepper proceedings, to the artists’ younger days when the three had become enamoured by a blind girl Sophie who meets a tragic end. The surreal mixing of the younger and older versions of each character introduce a chopped up chronology and musings on memory and identity.
The title of the play is a take on Duchamp’s cubist work ‘Nude Descending A Staircase’; here Donner’s descent is fatal. There are riffs on history of art aplenty, with other paintings making an appearance (a mustachioed Manet hanging in the younger characters’ flat) a case of mistaken identity via artwork and name checking of various movements and artist. The revisiting of the three friend’s absurd walking tour around France, complete with imaginary horse, as World War One becomes entrenched eruditely questions the limits of art and the social value of artists.
The venue is the suitably wonky upstairs of the theatre/pub the Old Red Lion. The Magritte inspired set, painted with cotton wool clouds, cleverly mimics the real rooftops outside and easily moves between the interior of the older characters’ studios and the various locations of the flashback scenes. The lighting is vividly evocative and helps to transcend the physical limitations of the relatively small space. The use of sounds from different locations, on stage from a gramophone and tape player, and off stage is well done and gives a new spatial weight to this aspect of the play, over a radio version.
This is the first outing in twenty years for what was originally a radio play. On the whole, the production is so well staged that there are no odd moments where this lineage becomes apparent. There are a few scenes which err on the side of mawkish, which may not have happened in a radio version-these scenes often seem to be those with the love story in them. In contrast, the performances of the older characters have an enjoyably light quality, from the pacey repartee between Beauchamp and Martello to the quiet torment of Donner, adding immensely to this witty and stylish production.