“packed with enticing themes, but consistently presents them in ways that aren’t engaging”
Revivals always generate intrigue as to what the creative team has found within a usually decades-old script that will resonate in new ways for modern audiences. When the play is penned by prolific writer David Hare, and helmed by prolific director Sir Richard Eyre, then the intrigue is amped up considerably. You can imagine my disappointment, then, to have the left the theatre none the wiser as to why The Bay at Nice has received a revival at all.
Set in a disused room of an art museum in Leningrad in 1956, hardened and straight-talking Valentina Nrovka (Penelope Wilton) is ostensibly there to authenticate a Matisse painting, but when her docile daughter Sophia (Ophelia Lovibond) informs her that she’s planning to leave her stoic husband for a less successful man (Peter, played by David Rintoul), the ideologies of the pair collide in a clash of the personal and political, freedom and duty, and will and instinct. The play sets these arguments against the subjectivity of the meaning of art, in contrast with the objectivity of the social and political structures in place at the time; for Sophia to get a divorce, for example, she is required to surmount numerous obstacles including advertising it in a newspaper and receiving marriage counselling at huge expense to her, as though not conforming to the state’s idea of love and happiness is something to be deeply ashamed of.
The Bay at Nice is packed with enticing themes, but consistently presents them in ways that aren’t engaging. Although Valentina initially chastises Sophia for wanting to leave her husband for Peter, she warms to him so quickly when he’s introduced that any sense of conflict dissipates fairly quickly. The script is also laden with labouring monologues, as opportunities to give the arguments a sense of prescience and agency are ignored in favour of long-winded stories about the characters’ pasts. These shortcomings prevent the design and direction from feeling scarcely more than perfunctory, simply creating a functional space for the actors to do their best with the dirge of anecdotes they have to deliver.
But do their best they certainly do. Martin Hutson as the fidgety and eager-to-please assistant curator rounds out a quartet of stellar performances, where each actor brings a unique energy and history to the stage. Wilton, as the epicentre of the play’s action, coaxes nuance out of every word, with such gravitas that there are a number of moments where she simply stands and eyes another character and it is totally enrapturing.
The engrossing dynamics of the cast, however, only make you yearn for a script with interactions that fully served them. With such an iconic team involved, it was surprising just how little flair this production contained; The Bay at Nice trudges along with a datedness that fails to justify its return after over thirty years.
“Every element of Admissions is running very smoothly, but it’s difficult not to feel like the whole thing is skirting around some realer issue”
The recent release of blockbuster superhero film Captain Marvel has seen a staggering spectrum of critiques crop up: some glowing, some vitriolic, and some more tepid. One of the more interesting arguments from the latter of those is that the film is riddled with ‘performative progressivism’ – that it heralds itself as part of a revolution in the representation of women heroes in Hollywood as though Marvel itself didn’t necessitate it with its previous twenty male-centric films. Joshua Harmon’s Admissions tries to dissect the role of performative progressivism in education – primarily university admissions – but the execution of the story raises questions as to whether the play falls victim to the very same thing.
Admissions opens with Sherri Rosen-Mason (Alex Kingston), an admissions officer at a prestigious school, chastising Roberta (Margot Leicester) for not taking diverse enough photos for their prospectus, as she’s hoping to raise the percentage of minority students to 20%. The sincerity of this belief is challenged, however, when her son Charlie (Ben Edelman) is deferred from Yale while his black friend Perry gets accepted despite them being otherwise nearly identical candidates, and so she and her husband Bill (Andrew Woodall) try to pull strings and exercise their privilege to secure a place for their son, and we see the perceived progressivism of Sherri is thrown firmly into doubt as soon as it affects someone related to her.
Harmon’s writing is explosive and satirical; Charlie’s first scene contains a venomous and entitled rant that sees him assert the notion that women and black students are only succeeding because of a need to fill quotas and ends with making a Nazi salute – it just about manages to toe the line between comedic and discomforting, despite a slightly overly-shouty performance from Edelman. Elsewhere, Sherri does her best to convince Roberta that she’s not discriminating against white people with her prospectus demands because some of her best friends are white. The performances all serve this excellently – Kingston’s stamina is exceptional, and Woodall brings a particularly stellar gravitas to his role, while Leicester wrings humour and pathos in equal measure for a beautifully measured performance.
Daniel Aukin ensures a slick pace with deft direction and scene changes that blend into each other, while Paul Wills’ set perfectly depicts the home of a white middle class family. Every element of Admissions is running very smoothly, but it’s difficult not to feel like the whole thing is skirting around some realer issue; it feels like the play at its heart is begging to critique the exclusive and privilege-ridden club that Ivy League universities (or the likes of Oxford and Cambridge here in the UK) have bred, and the opportunities that are only afforded to their graduates as a result. It comes across as hugely performative for the characters to preach the importance of making space at the table for a whole spectrum of people and identities while the play contains an all-white cast. Harmon even suggests in the programme that Admissions is a play about whiteness, but I have to wonder – do we need one?