Benet Catty Productions

Art (WE 2016)

Jan 13, 2017

Old Vic

Art is the best play currently running in London.
When Yasmina Reza's 90-minute black comedy first opened in London twenty years ago it was a sensational and long running hit. The first cast of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott was replaced at regular intervals by major actors, American stars and TV comedians all doing short runs. It ran on Broadway and around the world, winning numerous awards. Now, its original director Matthew Warchus - the best director in Britain - reunites the original team. The play is the same, the style is the same, the music is the same, the set is only slightly different, even the final lighting state is the same. The brilliance is undimmed.

The story of Art is well known. Serge has bought a painting for 100,000 euros: a white canvas with some off-white diagonal lines. He loves it. His friend Marc does not. He thinks his friend has lost his mind and forked out a small fortune for a white square. Their mutual friend Yvan, who's about to get married, tries to cool their argument down. It doesn't quite work out that way.

The real art of Art, of course, is that it is not a play about art at all, but about friendship and self-examination. As the three men argue about the painting and what it represents for them, their friendships and self-understandings begin to splinter and, ultimately, deepen. An early laugh comes when one of Marc's friends tells him, of the painting, "It's not hurting anyone." "It's hurting me!" screams Marc. Later we realise that this isn't hyberbole. He is hurt that someone he loves can care so much for something Marc sees as so ridiculous.

For some of us the equivalent might be losing respect for someone over a political view or a personal foible. Here it's art, but if it hadn't been art it would have been something else. It's no accident that the offending painting is a white canvas - the ideal target for projections and insecurities to be projected on to.

The real genius of the play, in Christopher Hampton's translation - the equal of anything in his fifty year career on stage and screen - is that one can think of any combination of friends and see who fits into each 'role'. One sits in the audience thinking through every combination of friends one spends time with, and what matters about them, and what could drive them apart. All of that is Reza.

Art has a history of attracting stars not because it needs them, but because the material is so strong as to attract major actors. This revival is no exception.

Paul Ritter, who was so deliriously funny in The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, gives Marc an edgier, less combustible characterisation than Finney did in 1996, but when he delivers the final speech to the audience, in which he explains what the painting and his friendship means to him now, you can hear a pin drop.

Rufus Sewell, with looks worthy of being hung in a gallery, brings an hilarious mixture of soft sensitivity and, later, incredulous contempt to the role of Serge and almost equals the amazing performance he gave in Closer at the Donmar Warehouse three years ago which was, to me, the best stage performance I've seen this decade.
They're matched by comedian Tim Key as the bearded but bristling unpretentious peacemaker who is forced not just to choose but, worse, to articulate his feelings after a lifetime of placating others with theirs. He's wonderful.

Like art itself, the experience of seeing the play is about moving between the light and shade, finding the textures and subtleties which might not be instantly apparent. It's a play about perspective and, as staged by Warchus, it is a profound evening at the theatre as well as being completely accessible and thrillingly entertaining.

Few plays contain, in such a short and brisk playing time, the capacity to be so hugely funny but also so moving, profound but unpretentious; so seemingly straightforward but actually multi faceted.

That is the wonder of the Old Vic's current brilliant work of Art.

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