By Mark Bolsover
‘Picasso Stole the Mona Lisa’ draws its inspiration from the incident of the actual theft of the Mona Lisa on 21st August, 1911.—Poet and Modern art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who had indeed once called for the Louvre to be “burnt down”, came under suspicion, and, after having been arrested and imprisoned, in turn attempted to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning. Both were later fully exonerated. Beginning from the premise of the two artists, cast here as hapless dandies, indeed involuntarily coming into possession of Da Vinci’s painting, and the absurd train of events that follow, Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club present a potentially smart, but ultimately crude and rowdy attempt at farce.
At the core of ‘Picasso Stole the Mona Lisa’ there are some potentially smart observations on the value of (and placed on) art, and the nature of representation. In particular, Vareen Kader’s Picasso’s impassioned defence and explanation of Cubism is actually quite deft, and the continual mock-meditations on the correct interpretation of Lisa’s smile show some genuine intellectual engagement and artistic and historical understanding.
However, the show is let down by the crudity and pedantry of its humour, and its strangely nervously anxious energy. There seems to be little confidence in the cast in the material, or trust in their audience. The show over-compensates for this nervousness, and the slightly flat energy underneath the performances, by pitching the attempted absurdist humour with far too much flamboyance. Will Dalrymple, as Apollinaire, never less than feverishly over-acts. Kader, on the other hand, makes a valiant attempt at laconic understatement. The problem is that the humour in Jamie Fenton’s script is not strong enough. The jokes are really slightly underpowered, lazy, and far too few. Their continual repetition, as well as passages of unnecessary exposition, begin to strain on the nerves. The strange, and again overdone, interjections by Elliot Wright in weird pastiches of various Modernist writers, fail to land. The humour here elicits groans and, at times, actual exclamations from the audience, rather than raucous belly-laughter. Indeed, the cast and crew seem to be more amused by the material than the audience, and the show rather too pleased with itself. It attempts (perhaps admirably) to be precociously smart, but manages only an affected precociousness, relying on profanity, volume and a crudely staged homoeroticism between the leads to compensate for a lack of substance.
There is potential, and some genuine intelligence evident from Fenton here, but the show mistakes crudity and hysteria for genuine farce, and the result is slightly adolescent and tiring.