I’ve been an admirer of David Hare’s work right from the start of his career (there can’t have been many 12-year-olds who read Slag in the early 70s) and it’s rewarding to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge by seeing the various gems of his back catalogue. I had never heard of The Bay at Nice, his 1986 one-act play set in a grand but comfortless display room at the Hermitage in St Petersburg – or Leningrad, as it was then. But I rarely pass up a chance to see what the Menier next has to offer, so it was with no preconceptions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I chose to spend our Easter Sunday in Southwark.
The year is 1956. Esteemed art expert Valentina Nrovka has been asked by the curators of the Hermitage to inspect a new acquisition – allegedly a Matisse – that has recently been bequeathed to the museum. There is some uncertainty as to its authenticity; and, as Mme Nrovka knew the artist personally in her youth, it is thought she would see through any deliberate attempts by a faker to pretend to the great man’s work. She is accompanied to the Hermitage by her daughter, Sophia, herself a part-time artist, and full-time disappointment to her mother. Over the course of 75 minutes, mother and daughter dissect their difficult relationship as Sophia’s marriage breakdown and new romantic liaison is revealed, against a backdrop of Communist Party politics, the motivation for creativity, the lure of the homeland, and the valuation of art.
One of the genuinely thrilling aspects of seeing a production at the Menier is the discovery of how they have configured its marvellously adaptable acting space. Fotini Dimou’s set has required the 200-or-so seats to be re-arranged, L-shaped, on just two sides of the theatre, to create a comparatively huge space, filled with coloured, borrowed light, to represent one of those enormous Hermitage galleries. Plush red and gilt chairs have been stacked unceremoniously to one side of the stage, beneath a Grand Master’s work; on the back wall of the stage, double doors that lead to the rest of the museum, the only clue that there’s a life outside. As the late afternoon turns into the early evening, Paul Pyant’s lighting design gradually becomes progressively dimmer, which may imply that the longer you talk about life and art – and the less you actually do it – clarity and understanding of these issues reduces. When Mme Nrovka finally looks at the painting, there’s only enough light for a peremptory glimpse – mind you, that’s all she needs.
Penelope Wilton is simply magnificent as Valentina, a woman who has reached a time in life when she is so accustomed to suppress any individual desires, who values the altruism of self-denial, if it’s to achieve a greater good. Her daughter, she reckons, is shallow beyond belief, following a path of self-interest which both ill-serves her family and prevents her from artistic expression. And she doesn’t like to be shaken up and questioned by what she perceives to be an inferior intellect; and is perfectly comfortable to say precisely what she thinks, regardless of how it might offend or distress others. Ms Wilton delivers Hare’s tremendous lines with natural authority, cutting sarcasm, forceful majesty, and a reasoned spite, in what is probably my favourite performance in a play so far this year.
Giving almost as good as she gets, Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Sophia; patronised, forced to explain herself, intimidated into defiance against her mother and her strictures. It’s a great portrayal of someone who, in everyday life has all the confidence needed to lead an assertive life but who crumbles under parental pressure. David Rintoul is also very good as her new man Peter, awkwardly hovering in the sidelines, choosing silence rather reacting to a taunt, putting his case plainly, honestly and supportively. And Martin Hutson is also great as the Assistant Curator, treading carefully around the Grande Dame’s ego, gently guiding her in the direction he wants, to the benefit of both self and party.
Despite its length, this dynamic little play packs a real punch and gives you so much to consider, laugh at, and identify with. Richard Eyre’s production is a first-class experience all the way. We loved it! It’s on at the Menier until 4th May, and I’d heartily recommend it.
Production photos by Catherine Ashmore