Selina Cadell, Henry Goodman, Sarah Smart
In Timberlake Wertenbakers new play, Edgar Degas reveres the humble line. A well formed line can be ferocious and supple, all other art spawns from it, and when a persons arm is perfectly posed it elicits “the curve of beauty”.
But whilst this may be so, I can only wish that the dramatic thread running through her own work felt just a little more fluid.
The Line tells the true story of the relationship between Degas and the considerably younger Suzanne Valadon over a period of thirty years.
Impressing him with her drawings, when she has received no formal training, he encourages her to devote her life to the art she is good at (drawing, etchings and later pastels) rather than to lose herself to commercially successful painting.
She ignores this advice, takes on a series of well-to-do lovers and husbands, and enjoys a successful painting career in her own right. She often doesnt see Degas for years at a time, and the play focuses on those occasions when they do fleetingly re-unite.
Throughout the play we learn much about Degas, the person and the painter, and if it is sometimes difficult to reconcile differing aspects of his personality, this only makes his character all the more intriguing. Degas is a loner who believes that no-one, if they are to be a true artist, can ever be devoted to anything else. He refuses to paint Suzanne nude because he fears he will fall in love with her, and that, by being his mistress, she could never be an artist. He wishes to paint reality warts and all, but he is also a patriot, and purposely ensures that his own art can be placed within the history of painting.
Unfortunately, the play is marred by a script that tends towards melodrama. It can be very powerful, but characters explode with rage rather too frequently, and Degas reaction whenever he sees Suzanne for the first time in years feels rather stylised. The characterisation is reasonably strong, but there remains a tendency for points to be made verbally through long lines and monologues, rather than conveyed through the characters interactions with each other.
Nevertheless, with the play staged in the round, William Dudleys set is highly effective. Surrounding Degas simple studio are enormous reproductions of his most iconic works. These contrast the world outside his studio, which laps up his paintings, with the man inside it all who finds himself in lines and drawing. Henry Goodman delivers a sterling performance as Degas, whilst Sarah Smart convincingly undergoes the transition from penniless circus performer to well-to-do wife. Selina Cadell is also engaging as Zoe, Degas housekeeper whom (we imagine) has previously been through much of what Suzanne now goes through with Edgar. As her devotion to Degas never wavers, it is heart breaking to see how she hopes against hope to be more important to him than she actually is.
The plays final moments are particularly potent as Zoe has to endure the agony of seeing Degas, virtually on his deathbed, in Suzannes arms. But whilst this moving scene ultimately helps The Line to stand as a good play, it still feels as if Wertenbaker has missed out on an opportunity to create a great one.