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September 13, 2004

The Old Masters - Simon Gray

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

The Old Masters
by Simon Gray, directed by Harold Pinter
Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London

What could seem more 'sure fire' than a drama set in sunny Tuscany, based on two famous eccentrics from the international art world of the 1930s and focussed around the question of how to authenticate a Renaissance masterpiece? And if you can get two of the most celebrated character actors on the London stage to play the eccentrics, you must have what it takes for a sell-out.

Even the best formula sometimes fails, however, and it rather does with The Old Masters at the Comedy in Panton Street. The two stars are Peter Bowles as Lord Duveen and James Fox as Bernard Berenson, and they are pretty good, though Foxite mannerisms always teeter towards the overripe. The women in the cast come over rather better Barbara Jefford particularly. She and Sally Dexter are there in part to reveal what a randy old monster Bernard Berenson actually was. Barbara Jefford also has the function of illuminating the other theme in the play, namely the perversely sado-masochistic marriage of the Berensons. Getting two plays for the price of one sounds like a bargain, but it's hard to integrate them, and difficult to sustain the tension. Certainly this bit of the audience found neither of its elements fused enough to make a successful play.

The central trigger of the play is that Duveen the Jewish art entrepreneur wants Berenson, still somewhat revered as the great master of art history, to authenticate The Adoration of the Shepherds as being by Giorgione. He needs this authentication because his patron Mellon is only interested at this point in buying a genuine Gorgione. There is a plausible case, however, that the work is by Gorgione's pupil Titian, so the play sets up the familiar conflict between commerce and art, cash against integrity. Which way will Berenson jump? This encounter is, indeed, the best thing in Simon Gray's play, but neither the psychological subtlety nor the grounds of artistic judgement are explored enough to integrate the principle with the particulars. Berenson's refusal to go along with his partner looks more like a perverse mood rather than a bit of craggy integrity. We learn from the programme that the painting is now generally but not universally agreed to be by Giogione. Bobbing in and out of the personal drama are other big issues art against life, culture against barbarism. Berenson can be amusing in his mockery of Mussolini whom he calls 'the duck', but almost his only real passion is his fear of the coming barbarism, and the play ends with distant sounds of war.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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