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Theatre Review The art of the matter

Jack Shepherd’s play poses acute questions about creativity and commodification, says LYNNE WALSH

The Cutting Edge
Arcola Theatre, London

THERE’S a great deal of dialectics and verbal sparring going on in Jack Shepherd’s new tragicomedy The Cutting Edge, his take on the mystifying world of modern art.
 
In it, Chris (David Sturzaker) and Anna (Jasmine Hyde) have run away from the stress of his high-paying job and are struggling to become self-sufficient in the countryside.

Something of a dated concept, but as good a notion as any to convey the dark undercurrent of their motives – Chris’s decision was a life-saving one rather than a whim to live “the good life.”
 
As Anna, Hyde is clearly holding a lot together and holding even more in. It’d have been easy to criticise that for almost two hours we hadn’t seen her real fragility but that would have misunderstood the well-paced direction from Shepherd. Her breakdown, when it comes, is all the more heartbreaking.
 
Sturzaker bumbles about beautifully as a man possessed with finding purpose in growing carrots for a home-made soup and there’s some delightful business about his self-identifying as a “writer,” rather than the well-paid but rather vapid journalist he was.
 
His previous place in life involved weaving esoteric words around the holy of holies of modern art and thus, he acknowledges, increasing its value. He’s all too aware that he’d played the pimp and that it’d damn near destroyed him.
 
But it’s Elvira, part-avenging angel, part-bohemian queen, who is at the centre of the piece. Played by the extraordinarily talented Maggie Steed, she arrives in an alcohol-befuddled cloud, reminiscing about the house and garden she had known many decades before.
 
She, it turns out, was a part of the authentic modern art movement. “Back then we appreciated it as a picture, not a commodity,” she declares.
 
Her every scene and every forensically structured but seemingly rambling speech is gripping. A shame, then, that the dialectic three-way duel involves three male voices comprising Chris, ill met by neighbour Peter (James Clyde) and Zak (Michael Feast). The latter is Elvira’s ligging sidekick, who delivers some uncomfortable truths about the venality of the art world.
 
Feast, as the the anti-Establishment rocker-turned-teenager who is still kicking against the pricks, handles his stereotype well and Clyde has a lovely comic sweetness.

But there is a lot unexplored here – was he, in truth, an authentic artist lurking in their midst? There seems to be something in him awakened by Elvira’s atavistic truth-telling.
 
There are flaws in a play that seems less than the sum of its parts. But it’s a vehicle both for Steed’s prowess and the complex, troubling question of whether man makes art or yet another commodification of something beautiful which only serves capitalism.

As such, it’s a springboard for a hundred very necessary conversations.
 
Runs until March 21, box office: arcolatheatre.com

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