The Old Masters

Simon Gray
Comedy Theatre
(2004)

It is a great relief to be able to report that, after the unmitigated disaster of The Holy Terror, Simon Gray is back on form.

For the ninth time in his career he has teamed up with his favourite director, Harold Pinter, and the combination works. There is little doubt that had he still been with us, a further collaborator, the late Alan Bates, would have made a fine lead.

The heart of The Old Masters is a verbal battle that took place in 1937 between art critic Bernard Berenson, known to the world as BB, and the dying art dealer for whom he worked for so many years, Joseph Duveen. This allows veteran actors Edward Fox and Peter Bowles to shine.

The early scenes show the septuagenarian BB with his "family" at home in a luxurious villa outside Florence, lavishly brought to the stage by Eileen Diss.

This rather unlovable but much-loved man is surrounded by a ménage that consists of his ill and seemingly dying American wife, played by Barbara Jefford (who is still going strong having made her stage debut in the 1940s), his secretary-lover Nicky (Sally Dexter) and an unseen Swedish masseuse who provides afternoon entertainment. Surprisingly, wife and lover get on together far more like mother and mature daughter.

After a visit from Duveen's wide-boy emissary (Stephen Pacey) the great man himself finally arrives at dead of night, a sinister black figure in heavy coat and homburg. The relationship between the two men is that of "scholar and trader". The oddly matched pair have by this time loved and hated each other for 25 years and it shows.

Their battleground, in an Italy ruled by a man that BB insists on referring to as "The Duck" and dangerous for two Jews, is a wondrous painting of The Adoration Of The Shepherds. Most experts have attributed this to Giorgione with the single exception of BB whose word still carries more weight than any other. This is despite a few recent "lapses" in attributions that have cost his employer dearly.

The Old Masters joust as BB insists not only that the painting is by Titian but that he will publicly announce the fact. This is a demonstration of how contrary he can be, since he is desperate for money and has been offered a generous partnership, as a bribe, by Duveen but then, their concerns are far more about defending sinking of reputations than cash.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Gray may have been far better advised to bring down the final curtain to sounds of impending war. The familial tidying up that follows adds little to what would have been a very satisfying finale.

This play really rests on the relationship between the two men and the performances of Fox and Bowles. Under Pinter's direction, the two veterans do playwright and director proud in their portrayal of two ruthlessly unpleasant men who really deserved each other.

Philip Fisher