Artist Descending a Staircase

Tom Stoppard
Old Red Lion Theatre
(2009)

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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.

Until 31st December

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury