Artist Descending a Staircase, Old Red Lion, London

In step with the family business

Rhoda Koenig
Monday 14 December 2009 01:00

Why were we told that Tom Stoppard first wrote with emotion, rather than just cleverness, in The Real Thing?

At least, that was how the play was promoted in New York when I, then living there, interviewed its dashing young star, Jeremy Irons, in 1984. Twelve years before, however, a British radio audience heard a play that had enough feeling choked behind its stiff upper lip to dampen their eyes. And now, in Artist Descending a Staircase, Irons's son Max, who did not exist until a year after our talk, acts in a manner so painful and sweet as to make the romantic young and the regretful old pay him tribute with their tears.

This stage version was originally seen in 1988, when it was criticised for being explicit and heavy-handed where the original was delicate and sensitive. I can only say that this one, shuffling time sequences like a stacked deck, full of emotional collisions and near-misses and light-as-air symbolism of the closeness of life and death, is more than sensitive enough for me.

There is also, of course, plenty of characteristic Stoppard playfulness (an artist talks about meeting Tarzan when he means Tristan Tzara, of having danced with a woman at Queen Mary's wedding – "no, maiden voyage") and waspish wit. Modern painters, says a traditional one, are "like priests – they demand our faith that something is more than it appears to be – bread, wine, a can of soup."

The play opens with two artists, Martello and Beauchamp, who have shared a studio with Donner for 60 years, discovering his body at the foot of the stairs. A tape recorder captured his last words: "Ah, there you are." Who was the visitor, and did he give the old man a push? Trying to solve the riddle, the two re-enact ancient quarrels and rivalries but miss, until the last seconds, what is literally under their noses.

Michael Gieleta's production is beautifully judged and cast. David Weston and Jeremy Child as the old Martello and Beauchamp, Ryan Gage and Alex Robertson as their young selves are all impeccable. But the highest honours go to Irons, as the young Donner to Edward Petherbridge's fierce, flinty old one; and to Olivia Darnley as the beautiful blind girl who tragically shows that, when it comes to love, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

To 31 December (020 7837 7816)

What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in