Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Line should to all intents and purposes be an engaging and enthralling drama. Based on the tempestuous relationship of a fiery and sexy woman and her infamous teacher, Edgar Degas, The Line could have been a vibrant and passionate exploration of the master, pupil relationship or furthermore questioned the ideas of art itself. Instead what results is a tedious repetition of conflict and resolution which carries neither party further forward apart from in years.
Edgar Degas is a crotchety but deeply admired artist whose fierce house keeper, Zoe, keeps an iron grip on those people allowed to visit her precious artist in residence. Enter the spirited Suzanne Valadon, a model and ‘muse’ of such greats as Toulouse-Lautrec, and somewhat of an artist herself it transpires as she reveals her drawings to Degas. Degas, though reluctant at first, soon falls under Valadon’s spell and takes her on as a pupil in the beginning of a relationship that is to span the rest of his life and hugely influence the course of hers.
Degas is a deeply complex character who worked with and influenced some of the greatest artists in the 20th Century and Henry Goodman gives an admirable performance in the role. His is a man conflicted; an artist whose stringent beliefs lead him to cultivate the reputation as a ‘misanthropic bachelor’ that perhaps did not come as naturally to him as he wanted others to think. But he is not helped by a cumbersome script which gives him chunky passages of art theory or disconnected moments of ethereal prophetic ‘wisdom’. As he imparts these to his wilful charge, it is hard not to feel slightly cringy because they seem to come out of nowhere; would a real person speak like that? As the charge Sarah Smart is suitably alluring although she seems to be constantly pushing too hard which lends her performance the appearance of slight desperation. Selina Cadell forms the third in this holy trinity of art with a solid turn as the sturdy Zoe but any moments of promise allowed to this wonderful actress are also kyboshed by a stodgy script. The cast though strong individually seem to find no flow collectively and the whole thing has a stuttering sense to it. Matthew Lloyd struggles to bring a continuous arc to a piece which stops and starts continuously and the whole thing feels very long.
At least William Dudley’s design is beautiful enough to distract for moments as it delicately encases the audience in Degas’ images. Translucent sheets hang everywhere, so that his voluptuous woman embrace us all with a lightness and fluidity which is so lacking from the production at hand.
For a play about a bohemian artist the whole thing feels very middle class and at times like a BBC sitcom and although there are points when Wertenbaker’s undeniable style and flair shines through, overall this is a very fudged line indeed.
Runs until 12th December http://www.arcolatheatre.com/
Originally written for The Public Reviews.