York Theatre, January 25.


Heather’s Rose’s 2016 novel, The Museum of Modern Love, being vast in scope, elaborate in structure and intensely internalised, seemed to defy transposition to the stage. But playwright Tom Holloway has succeeded by smoothing out the structural twists and snaking subplots, making the pervasive sadness about as in-your-face as your mask, and, in a truly inspired decision, by omitting the protagonist.

Aileen Huynh. Top: Julian Garner. All photos: Ten Alphas.

That protagonist was Marina Abramovic, the real-life, fearless Serbian performance artist, who in 2010 created The Artist is Present, in which she sat for 75 days in the atrium of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while one patron after another sat in a facing chair, and they stared at each other. Was it art? Yes. Abramovic made herself the work, and whether they sat with her for minutes or hours, people were often profoundly moved – just like looking at a painting, sculpture or film, except this also carried echoes of the therapeutic release of emotional blockages.

If Abramovic is not among Holloway’s characters, she is still a god-like presence in the play, changing the lives of the mortals blundering about the stage. To a degree, we, the audience, become her, because from an upstage screen the sometimes haunted faces of those sitting with her stare at us. They are mostly as still as statues until they blink, or a tear forms, or the ghost of a smile plays upon a mouth.

Among them is Arky (Julian Garner), a composer, mainly for film. The lifelong sickness of his wife, Lydia (Tara Morice), an innovative architect, has finally resulted in her hospitalisation with no exit clause. She has drawn up a legal document that allows their daughter, Alice (Harriet Gordon-Anderson) to visit her, but not Arky. She wants him to compose, not see her decompose.

Tata Morice and Harriet Gordon-Anderson. Photos: Ten Alphas.

As the title suggests, the work is as much about the nature of love as the nature of art. Five characters – Abramovic, Arky, Lydia, Jane (Sophie Gregg) and perhaps Healayas (Jennifer Rani) have known exhilarating, all-consuming love that was crushing to lose. While the play can’t quite find an equivalence for Rose’s stunning luminosity of prose, it is still mysteriously beautiful, challenging, confronting and poignant. Indeed Lydia’s relationship with her decay is almost a love-affair of its own: her last great work, she tells us, is not creating a thing, but a disintegration.

Director Timothy Jones has assembled a superlative cast, completed by Glenn Hazeldine as Arnold, a loud-mouthed critic, Aileen Huynh as Brittika, a feisty student writing a PhD on Abramovic, and Justin Amankwah portraying incidental characters. Garner’s Arky pulsates with nervous energy, creative energy, guilt and despair. Morice’s Lydia is a heart-rending shell, inside which still lurks a kernel for Arky to try to grasp. Gordon-Andersons’s Alice is convincingly combative, suspicious and hurt: the daughter of two artists who has opted out, into medicine.

Veronique Benett’s costumes are astutely evocative, without suggesting pastiches of the characters, as they dash themselves against life on Stephen Curtis’s Spartan set. The play deftly caters for those unfamiliar with the book, yet one senses it should be even more affecting than it is. A more glaring – although more readily solved – problem lay with vocal projection, especially in the first third of the 100-minute performance. The actors were miked up, partly so reverb effects could suggest the gallery’s cavernous atrium, but the cast must follow Hazeldine and Rani’s lead, and not rely on the amplification. With that addressed, this will be an unmissable jewel.