The Old Masters (2004)
Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, UK
Comedy Theatre, London, UK
Programme Cover
Written by Simon Gray
Directed by Harold Pinter
Set Design by Eileen Diss
Costume Design by Dany Everett
Lighting Design by Mick Hughes

Edward Fox as Bernard Berenson
Peter Bowles as Duveen
Barbara Jefford as Mary
Sally Dexter as Nicky
Steven Pacey as Fowles

Reveiw - Daily Telegraph - Friday 2nd July 2004

The Old Masters is written by Simon Gray, directed by Harold Pinter, and stars two of Britain's most cherishable senior actors, Edward Fox and Peter Bowles. A few years ago, it would have been a sure fire hit.

Peter Bowles and Edward Fox
Photographer - Hugo Glendinning
These days, I'm not sure that such solid virtues are any longer  box office in a West End reeling from double whammy of declining audiences and a public taste that has been corrupted by so many shows offering instant mindless gratification. Enjoy The Old Masters while you can - it could be one of the last of its kind.

The action is set in 1937, at I Tatti, the beautiful villa outside Florence owned by the celebrated art historian Bernard Berenson, living in a ménage á trios with his ailing wife Mary and his devoted secretary Nicky.

Berenson is beginning to feel the financial pinch of owning such a splendid home, and regards the rise to power of Mussolini, whom he calls the Duck, with fear and loathing. The barbarians are all too evidently at the gates, threatening the civilisation to which Berenson has devoted his life.

Then Joseph Duveen, the powerful and flamboyant art dealer, arrives. He has had a turbulent relationship with Berenson for many years and has brought a painting with him, a picture of the adoration of the shepherds at Christ's nativity. The problem is that Berenson insists that it is by Titian, while Duveen is desperate for him to authenticate it as a rare Giorgione, which will vastly increase its price.

Steven Pacey & Edward Fox
Photographer - Hugo Glendinning
The play thus offers an examination of the fraught relationship between the aesthetic and spiritual value of art and its cash worth in the market place, as well as exploring Berenson's own integrity. This has been seriously undermined in recent years, with evidence that the man with the famous "eye" for old masters was involved in no end of highly dubious authentications.

The meat of the play consists of a marvellous central scene, straddling both sides of the interval, in which the devious Duveen attempts to bend Berenson to his will in a splendidly absorbing game of cat-and-mouse, in which you are never quite sure who is the cat and who the mouse. Better still, Bowles and Fox are at the very top of their game.

Some will doubtless complain that Fox is nothing like Berenson, a Lithuanian Jew who moved to America at the age of 10. Is it likely that such a man would speak like a magnificently eccentric English aristocrat from the novels of PG Wodehouse? No it isn't.

Sally Dexter
Photographer - Hugo Glendinning
Whenever Fox is holding forth, with that languorously drawling voice, those hooded eyes, and the pained, appalled expression of a man who has just swallowed an oyster and realised it's a wrong'un, we seem to be at Blandings Castle rather than I Tatti.

Personally, however, I can never get enough of this unique and extravagantly mannered actor, and what the performance lacks in authenticity, it certainly makes up for in preposterous entertainment value.

Nor does Peter Bowles allow himself to be daunted by such delicious hammery. Arriving in an astrakhan-collared coat like an actor-laddie of old, he performs his patented old-smoothie-with-just-a-hint-of-menace routine with all his familiar suave aplomb. Watching this pair playing against each other with such cunning is a joy.

Barbara Jefford
Photographer - Hugo Glendinning
Unfortunately, the central double act makes the exploration of Berenson's relationships with his wife and his mistress seem worryingly peripheral, though they are expertly played by Barbara Jefford and Sally Dexter. Nor can Pinter's production disguise the fact that the play sometimes seems unfocused and excessively garrulous.

In the final analysis, the piece is less illuminating about art, less touching in its account of human love, than one might have hoped. See it for Fox and Bowles, two wily old masters in their prime.

By Charles Spencer
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