Artist Descending a Staircase
08/02/2024 - 17/02/2024
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Sheena Townsend
Globe Theatre Dunedin
When Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase opens, it’s 1972 and we’re introduced to three elderly avant-garde artists, life-long friends and roommates. Donner lies dead at the bottom of the stairs. Was it Martello or Beauchamp who pushed him? The event has been recorded, so surely the evidence is clear. …
Originally written and produced as a radio play, Stoppard adapted this “[i]ntricate and intriguing” (Daily Mail) piece for the stage in 1988. In The Globe’s production, audiences can expect to experience an artfully and meticulously written series of flashbacks – to the 1920s and eventually 1914 – followed by a gradual return to the present day and our current predicament. You’ll be treated to Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly comedic flare brought to life. Donner still lies dead at the bottom of the stairs, but having peered into the lives of our artists, witnessing love won and lost in tragedy, do we see matters differently? Are we changed? Can we rely on our senses? On memory?
Globe Theatre, Dunedin
8 – 17 February
8, 9, 10th at 7.30pm
11th at 2pm
15, 16, 17th at 7.30pm
Tickets at Humanitix
Director - Sheena Townsend
Assistant Director - Lorraine Johnston
Production Manager - Lorraine Johnston
Stage Manager - Rosemary Manjunath
Assistant Stage Managers - Calum Beck, Echo Beres
Front of House Manager - Kay Masters
Lighting Design - Cody McRae
Sound Design - Craig Storey, Louisa Stabenow
Lighting Operators - Daniel McClymont, Ella Kalmarkoff, April McMillan Perkins
Sound Operator - Harriet Love
Set Design - Sheena Townsend
Set Construction - Rosemary Manjunath, Adam Dempsey, Calum Beck, Craig Storey
Props - Rosemary Manjunath, Craig Storey
Costume - Rosemary Manjunath
Publicity - Jess Keogh, Thomas Makinson, Don Townsend
Beauchamp - Craig Storey
Martello - Cheyne Jenkinson
Donner - Brent Caldwell
Young Beauchamp - Jackson Rosie
Young Martello - Thomas Makinson
Young Donner - Daniel Cromar
Sophie - Louisa Stabenow
Sugar Art is Just the Beginning… a smart, funny jigsaw of a play
Review by Andrew McKenzie 10th Feb 2024
Dunedin’s Globe Theatre has mounted a production of Tom Stoppard’s early play Artist Descending a Staircase and it is worth catching.
The play is a smart, funny jigsaw puzzle that begins with an aged dead artist at the bottom of a staircase and then steadily works backwards in time. Each new scene explores what led up to the situation before, before U-turning at half time and working forward again, filling in blanks as it goes to reveal the mystery. The structure is inherently entertaining to watch, and riffs comedically on Duchamp’s original concept of offering differing perspectives on the nude descending the staircase. It adds a further gag from the playwright that if a subject is walking down the staircase, then naturally he has to trip and break his neck.
Director Sheena Townsend and her cast and crew have given us a capable production that allows us to receive the script clearly and enjoy the plot twists and intellectual virtuosity of the dialogue. The full house responded with enthusiasm and enjoyment to the show. The production wrestles with the common issue amateur theatre companies face of not being quite well enough resourced to mount certain scripts. In this case, it means the theatre’s bottleneck architecture versus the set design struggled to allow smooth, seamless steps back and forward in time without cumbersome shifting of furniture; and where the script calls for three artists who were in their early 20s in World War 1 and are now in their 70s or even 80s, Craig Storey (Older Beauchamp) and Brent Caldwell (Older Donner) are probably better described as age-adjacent while Cheyne Jenkinson (Older Martello) had to rely on whitened hair and a walking stick to sell the shortfall.
As the scenes move backward in time and more furniture is stripped from the stage, the comedy ramps up and becomes more absurd and free, allowing for hilarious situations resembling Monty Python skits: three young artists at a tea party cocksurely competing to impress a blind (!) girl of their art; next, the three same artists enjoying an idyllic stroll through the French countryside, as the locals gear up for a new wave of trench warfare about them. The Young Artists (Jackson Rosie, Thomas Makinson and Daniel Cromar) pick up the concept well and play with restrained fun. I would argue there is room for even more exuberance and anarchy in their delivery. Young Martello’s hilariously absurd pitch for a sculpture based on a literal rendition of the woman from Old Testament’s Song of Solomon while oblivious to artillery shells whistling about his ears receives deserving applause from the audience, both recognizing the enthusiastic delivery and the outrageousness of the writing. The use of sparse set, gorgeously selected walking costumes and bold sound effects in this scene worked a treat, pointing the way to a possibly more effective overall solution to the production design challenges mentioned above.
The play was originally written and produced as a radio play in the early 1970s, then Stoppard (whose other works include Arcadia, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love) returned to it later to adapt it for the stage. In some scenes, consisting of witty-and-funny-but essentially verbal exchanges, the play’s dramaturgical heritage as an audio piece is still evident. In these more verbal scenes, often played with the actors sitting in armchairs, the director and cast could have dug a bit deeper into the characters and their vinegary emotional subtexts to create a fully alive rendition. The Older Artists’ substitution of petty artistic quibbles to fill the voids of their broken, bitter hearts and rivalries wasn’t fully realized. In those scenes the standout player was Caldwell, who communicated the emotional stakes of his character well.
As the youthful object of the artists’ rivalries and affections, Louisa Stabenow turns the possible disadvantage of being the sole female cast member into a strength. Dressed in a well-chosen gown with tasteful, period-appropriate hair and makeup, she works the tea party scene to capitalize on the comedy of being a blind girl who can clearly see she’s the centre of attention. Her final moment on stage is another example of sparse set, simple light, and well-chosen sound effects being used together effectively.
Stoppard’s beautifully complex play runs at the Globe until 17 February, and I recommend you catch it.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer