Sebastien, the main character of Coward's 1956 play Nude with Violin, answers in a different language each time he picks up the telephone. When, late on, he makes a phone call and talks Cockney, we think that at last we are getting to who he really is.
Not so. We know no more about Sebastien at the end of the play than we do in its first minute.
Meanwhile, the play is supposed to be about art. Sebastien is valet to the just-deceased Paul Sorodin, a Modernist artist celebrated in academies and salerooms the world over. His long-estranged wife, daughter, son, and connoisseur-cum-agent Friedland are back from the funeral expecting to divide the spoils. We already suspect that Sebastien might have something up his immaculate sleeve and he has: the thoroughly attested bombshell that Sorodin faked his entire oeuvre. The succeeding episodes colour this in as his sworn accomplices - "a Russian tart, a Jackson girl, a Negro 11th-hour Immersionist and a boy of 14" - arrive to exact the price of their silence.
As a satire on modern art the play is laboured and unoriginal, but its real subject is the relationship between the valet and his absent hero. The impeccable Sebastien is black, but otherwise his picaresque autobiography makes him as elusive as the Count of Monte Cristo.
By contrast, we know exactly where Sorodin's family and Friedland come and are coming from. His widow Isobel, brilliantly played by Marcia Warren, is an English society woman who lives in a genteel mist of irrelevancies, her son Colin an unpleasant army blimp, daughter Jane the family rebel, and Friedland all cultivated self-interest.
Disparaged and condescended to, the mercurial Sebastien derives a nicely modulated pleasure from stage-managing their bewilderment and discomfiture. Derek Griffiths is an actor born with his tongue in his cheek and he contrives the enigmatic insouciance with all the required ease. The one point where we probably sense sincerity is the confession Jane draws from him that he was "genuinely fond" of her father, whose actions flowed from his love of art and detestation of the meretricious industry surrounding it.
But this scene, though strongly emphasised in Marianne Elliott's confident production, is never developed in a play that simply lacks narrative force. Having created his situation, Coward appears to have been content with the repetitious sport provided by the sequential arrival of the true "artists".
Though often enjoyable, ennui, or, as Gay Soper's hilariously bilingual chorus-girl might have it, enn-oo-ee, eventually sets in.
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