Two old masters of the stage, playwright Simon Gray and his frequent directorial collaborator, fellow playwright Harold Pinter who has directed eight of Gray’s previous plays over the last 33 years, reunite for The Old Masters.

I’d love to be able to report that the portrait they’ve created of the supposedly turbulent relationship of two art lovers based in Italy – one a celebrated expert, the other a famous dealer – is a work of art itself. But it’s as mundane and sedately undramatic as a poor copy, resolutely refusing to splutter into dramatic or artistic life, despite the efforts of a star cast to try to salvage it.

As with his last West End entry, the short-lived Holy Terror, which revisited the same character in the same dilemma as an earlier play of his called Melon, Gray now returns once again to the characters and situation of an earlier published, but previously unstaged, play called The Pig Trade. (In one of the few passing diversions of the new evening, it’s interesting to spot an unseen art collector referred to by the name of Melon).

But on the sedentary evidence now being presented on the stage of the Comedy Theatre, this may well have been a play better left to languish in the bottom drawer. Although Michael Frayn has lately demonstrated that there’s terrific dramatic mileage to be gained from the territory of historical speculation about the collisions of real-life figures in plays like Copenhagen and the current West End hit Democracy, Gray’s speculation on the real-life professional relationship of art expert Bernard Berenson (often referred to simply by his initials here) and dealer Joseph Duveen doesn’t achieve the same impact.

Even though Gray seeks to raise the dramatic stakes by setting his play in the shadow of the Second World War, there isn’t much in the way of tension as Duveen simply seeks Berenson to authenticate that a painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds, is painted by Giorgione, not Titian.

Instead, it’s left to the actors to sketch in the detail as they seek to illuminate their characters. Even here some of the casting is unhelpful. It’s always difficult with Edward Fox (who plays Berenson) to work out where the actor ends and the character begins. Fox is surely one of our most eccentric stage actors, like a patrician version of Peter O’Toole. Does any actor stand at odder angles? When he’s concentrating deeply on a painting, you think he might just topple over. And does any actor speak with more languid phrasing? But if Fox is compellingly odd, Peter Bowles brings his customary suave polish to Duveen.

There’s excellent support, too, from the always estimable Barbara Jefford as Berenson’s terminally ill wife, Sally Dexter as his assistant and mistress, and Steven Pacey as Duveen’s emissary. But this is a production that suggests that the West End is on some kind of death wish, atrophying before your very eyes.

- Mark Shenton


NOTE: The following TWO-STAR review dates June 2004 and this production’s original run at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

It is claimed that art has no practical purpose. Whether that refers to art in its widest-sense or to pieces of art work, I know not.

But if the actual purpose of art is to educate or entertain, or to evoke or provoke emotion, then one must have high hopes for a new play by a renowned writer, performed by a high-pedigree cast working under an acclaimed director.

In fact, throw the weight of experience of Simon Gray, Harold Pinter, Edward Fox, Peter Bowles and Barbara Jefford into the proverbial pot, and there could be no doubt that the result would be a success.

So why did I leave Birmingham Rep's opening night of this world premiere feeling not only underwhelmed, but almost bewildered?

I could appreciate the excellence of the performances, the pace and understanding of the direction, the intricacies of the writing - but I left feeling nothing for any of the characters, and for most of the evening I couldn't have cared less about them.

The whole of act one is devoted to establishing these characters in Mussolini's 1937 Italy, as ageing art scholar Bernard Berenson (Fox) discusses the world at large with his wife Mary (Jefford) and his mistress Nicky (Sally Dexter). When Fowles (Steven Pacey) visits to inform Berenson that millionaire art dealer Joseph Duveen (Bowles) is on his way to visit, writer Gray begins to offer up questions as to their relationship and why Berenson should be so against seeing the dealer.

When Duveen arrives, it is to request Berenson to authenticate an exquisite Renaissance painting - but was it painted by Giorgione or his pupil Titian? The uncertainty and the request throw into question not only the painting's provenance, but also the two men’s 30-year friendship and business arrangement.

And what follows is an examination of their history, motives and respective reputations as they intellectualise as much about life as about art. But it all feels a little old-school common room with two ageing scholars trying to get the better of each other.

I have no doubt that fans of Gray's work will love it, but it wasn't for me. Perhaps the result is much like any piece of art - you may appreciate its quality, but you either like it or you don't.

- Elizabeth Ferrie