Plays about art are all too common: we've just seen The Writer (at the Almeida) that puts the high cost of being a playwright (at least emotionally speaking) under the spotlight. There's also currently The Moderate Soprano, about the life of the real-life opera impresario who founded Glyndebourne, on at the West End's Duke of York's. And Red, a play about painter Mark Rothko, is heading to open at Wyndham's Theatre imminently. So there seems to be an endless appetite for plays about the people behind the art we see or hear.
Words, of course, paint vivid pictures, but can they describe sound and the process of writing great music? The National's recent revival of Amadeus got around this problem by including an onstage orchestra that offered live performances of some of the great Mozart music we are told about. Now at the Old Vic, playwright Joe Penhall asks us to take it on trust that middle-aged rock star Bernard is worth all the subservience and acclaim given to him, as he brings another, much younger female singer-songwriter Cat into his orbit - and then proceeds to artistically appropriate her contributions as his own. (We hear only brief snatches of the music they make together.)
This is another in the catalogue of artists-behaving-badly series of plays about creative folk. As such, it's a bit circular and repetitive, endlessly circling around its subject to show variations of him preying and her being preyed-upon. But Penhall's writing is so agile in its free-form structure - as it intercuts between past and present and parallel scenes as both of them interact with their respective psychotherapists and legal representatives - that it is also constantly gripping.
It tells a predictable story unpredictably, and is full of keen observations about the arrested emotional development of celebrities and how artistic collaborations are both forged and destroyed. Director Roger Michell stages it in a newly-configured Old Vic that has a huge thrust out into the stalls, which brings the action much closer to those seated in the circle and wraps the audience around it, but also means occasionally poor sightlines. Hildegard Bechtler's most bare stage has microphones hanging all over it, and a few chairs that get reconfigured for the protagonists' respective therapy sessions.
It is, most of all, acted with a spellbinding intensity, with Ben Chaplin and Seána Kerslake as the collaborators-turned-adversaries who use, abuse and threaten each other. They are rivetingly supported by Pip Carter and Neil Stuke (as his therapist and lawyer respectively) and Jemma Redgrave and Kurt Egyiawan (as her equivalents).
Mood Music Tickets are available now.