It’s the Soviet Union in the 1950s and a museum thinks it may have come across a genuine Matisse. So it calls in a woman who knew him, Valentina, to take a look at the painting. Valentina’s daughter Sophia comes too so that she can ask her mother for money as she wants a divorce, a tricky process in those days and in that place.
David Hare’s 1986 play, revived here for the first time, is, on the surface, about the struggle for art to exist in a totalitarian state. But mostly this is about Valentina and Sophia, and the allowances and intransigences of mother-daughter relationships.
Penelope Wilton’s Valentina is the kind of bon-mot-spewing older woman that Julian Fellowes specialises in (although that’s hardly Hare’s fault). Almost every line is a zinger, which is a bit wearisome cumulatively even if some of them are pretty priceless individually.
It’s a role in which Wilton, austere in an elegant black gown, excels. By turns harshly pragmatic then movingly sentimental, she reflects these conflicting modes brilliantly, not least through her posture: one minute she’s upright like an iron rod, the next weak and flimsy like a length of rope.
If only the play itself were as layered, conflicted and captivating as Wilton’s performance. Though often quite interesting – it has a lot to say about art and freedom, on both intimately personal and grandly political scales, and says it nicely with big speeches – there’s a lot lacking in the artistry of the container, and ultimately it’s a pretty pro forma piece, even if Richard Eyre’s stark and simple production gets the best out of it.
Ophelia Lovibond, as daughter Sophia, can’t quite find the age she’s meant to be. She comes across either as too old or too young. While her slipperiness and inability to settle is occasionally a virtue for the character – after all, everyone reverts to being a child when they’re in front of their mother – it also lacks credibility. On top of that, Lovibond plays it all just a shade too forcefully, especially alongside the careful restraint of Wilton.
Fotini Dimou’s set is breathtaking. A grand and faded museum room, it is so simply and elegantly real. It’s like we’re perched at the very edge of an old Russian palace, and it makes the Menier space seem palatial. Huge double doors lead off to a corridor, the only visible bit of which is a glimpse of a huge mural – a really clever way of hinting at huge proportions.
This is a very swift and capable production from Eyre. But the great artistry comes through Wilton and the set on which she plays.