Review: The Line, Arcola

“I understand painting, literature, music and France. What else is there to understand?
‘There’s love’.”

Written by the delightfully monikered Timberlake Wertenbaker (more proof that my name is indeed too dull to be a playwright!), The Line claims to tell one of the “great untold stories of modern art”. Edgar Degas’ (Henry Goodman) life is disrupted by the arrival of a young, self-assured woman, Suzanne Valadon (Sarah Smart) who is possessed of much artistic talent, but wants tutoring. Their relationship develops from master and pupil to something more despite their differing views on the future of art and their paths diverging over the next 20 years: the pair are watched over all-the-while by Degas’ housekeeper, Zoé Clozier.

The ever-flexible space at the Arcola has been converted into an artist’s studio, with canvasses strewn all around the walls which gives a great sense of atmosphere and there’s furniture placed in the centre of the stage, representing the drawing room in which much of the action takes place. It is staged in the round (or more accurately the square) which is largely effective, but does prove slightly problematic towards the end as Valadon shows some of her work to Degas and so it is only displayed to one half of the audience.

As the ageing Degas, Henry Goodman gives a cracking performance full of irascibility and a real sense of great devotion to the pursuit of his art, at the expense of all other human comforts. His physical changes as the years pass are utterly convincing, culminating in an amazing scene as he traverses the streets of Paris. Sarah Smart brought a delightful sparkiness to her developing artist who struggles in negotiating the fine line between pursuing her own art in the way she wants to, whilst trying to remain faithful to the memory of the traditions that her mentor holds so dear. She’s also having to balance this with her dogged survival in society as a mother and woman of low birth.

The most surprising performance for me though was Selina Cadell’s Zoé: as Degas’ housekeeper, she was a tower of quiet strength, often spending entire scenes watching in silence, but acting just as much anyone else onstage. There’s an air of resignation about her as she’s fully aware that she will not go down in history despite being Degas’ rock and working just as hard as he does, she’s an artist in her own right too.

Presented in 15 short scenes, this play could feel very disjointed but it felt seamless due to the swift scene changes and the strong acting: the only bum note was the poorly projected dates indicating the passage of the years which felt clunky, but hopefully this will have been tightened up before opening night. The Line offers a fantastic opportunity to see some truly first class acting up close and personal, and with some great deals on tickets floating around, this is one you shouldn’t miss.

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