The Old Masters, Comedy Theatre

Shrewd drama survives miscasting and overacting
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Edward Fox is not everybody's idea of a Bostonian American of Lithuanian Jewish extraction. The wrinkly master of the strangulated English patrician drawl (his last West End appearance was as Harold Macmillan, for God's sake) stubbornly continues to play to type as Bernard Berenson, the pre-eminent 20th century art historian who is the protagonist of Simon Gray's new work, The Old Masters.

It says a lot for the power of the piece and its cunning construction that such flagrant miscasting in Harold Pinter's over-acted production does not detract too much from the pleasure afforded by Gray's shrewd, beautifully articulated drama. A subtle and cunningly constructed piece, The Old Masters trains its attention on the potentially corrupt relationship between art dealer and art expert and examines the human price of dictating the commercial value of pictures that transcend the market's idea of worth.

The setting is the garden and library of I Tatti, the idyllic villa outside Florence where Berenson lived with his spouse and mistress. Ripples of unease disturb the Tuscan serenity. This is 1937 and Mussolini's Italy is not the ideal place for a Jewish alien world authority on Renaissance art. Berenson's wife is dying and his three-decade relationship authenticating works of art for the egregious dealer, Joe Duveen, seems to be at an acrimonious standstill. Then Duveen, whose vivid, vulgar larger-than-life-even-when-dying quality is undersold by a withered Peter Bowles, arrives to offer Berenson a full partnership in his firm. This is as a reward for what he hopes will be the calculated scholarly silence about the attribution of an oil painting called The Adoration of the Shepherds. Is it a Giorgioni (died young, few paintings, consequently pricey) or a Titian (under-appreciated because his pieces are comparatively more numerous)? The production's best performance is by Barbara Jefford who plays Mary, Berenson's mortally stricken wife, in a portrayal that manages miraculously never to stray into melodrama however far the production veers into overstatement. It's in his climactic conversation with her that Berenson's difficulties become painfully clear. Authentication is a vicious circle: how do you keep your market value as an authenticator, if you have made too much money allowing things to go through on the nod? Can you recover your reputation by a profitless lie? Would the reputation be worth recovering?

My only cavil is that, unlike David Edgar's Pentecost and Alan Bennett's A Question Of Attribution, the visual content of this play has a weak dramatic bearing on the rest of its themes. The other difficulties aside, The Old Masters is authentically vintage Gray.