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The Bay at Nice
By David Hare
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Until May 4, 2019
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
First seen at the National in 1986, with American Irene Worth in the lead, this 75min one-act play formed part of a double bill with Wrecked Eggs, a companion piece, which juxtaposed Soviet constraints vs American freedom. Hare later discarded the latter so here we're left with the Soviet story, which in itself is a compelling chamber piece. It provides a really juicy role for a mature leading lady and Penelope Wilton jumps at the chance.
Set in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad in 1958, Wilton plays Valentina, a formidable former pupil of Henri Matisse and now an art expert, who has been asked to verify the authenticity of a painting of his that has been bequeathed to the museum. On her visit she is joined by Sophia (Ophelia Lovibond), her dowdy put-upon daughter, who is using the meeting to beg her mother for money to pay for a divorce, difficult to attain at that time in Russia. She's dropping her dull, schoolmaster husband, who also happens to be an ambitious Communist Party member, for a new love, Peter (David Rintoul). He is kindly but much older and Valentina castigates Sophia for being in love with his hopelessness.
Dressed in black, hair tied in a severe bun, Valentina positively drips with waspish bon mots. The insults directed at her daughter are laced with glee but Wilton goes beyond all this and captures the thwarted passion which lies underneath all her testy hauteur. In 1921 she actively opted to quit her wild bohemian life in Paris, with her baby daughter in tow, for what she'd hoped would be a more meaningful life in the privations of Leningrad.
Although on the surface the piece has not aged very well – it is rather too static and the characters neatly mouth complex arguments with far too much fluency – the piece is typical of a type of theatre which savours refined, intellectual, debate. It's a play of ideas that explores the choices we make in both art and life be it instinct vs will or selfishness vs idealism or principle vs pragmatism and it asks what exactly constitutes freedom.
Valentina pontificates about arriving at a knowledge at "what life is like", but you don't believe her. She is all for discipline and rectitude but it has eaten into her. When she finally undrapes the Matisse, which the audience doesn't get to see, Wilton's face softens, a tear wells up and we glimpse all the pain of a life half lived. But there is an added twist to this. Can she risk embarrassing the museum, which her declaration of a fake might just do? The whole thing becomes a test of her life. Wilton, in an object lesson of great acting, conjures all of this in just one look.
Richard Eyre conducts these refined discussions with his usual flair, giving it a lightness of touch, and allowing the words the space they need. In the end, though, it's Wilton's show.