Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase at the Old Red Lion, London. Photograph: Donald Cooper
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.
Review from The Independent
Artist Descending a Staircase
Venue: Old Red Lion
Where: Inner London
Date Reviewed: 8 December 2009
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.