French playwright Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art, translated by Christopher Hampton, tells the story of three male friends who become divided after the wealthiest, Serge (Nigel Havers), a dermatologist, splashes out 200,000 on a painting by a fashionable artist. First premiered in Paris in 1994 before the translated version opened to great acclaim in London a couple of years later, it’s easy to see how Reza drew inspiration from the controversy over art at the time, when the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin were hardly out of the headlines.
The canvas Serge proudly presents to Marc (Denis Lawson) is nothing if not modern art at its most questionable. Entirely white with faint diagonal lines in varying shades of white, the cynical Marc with a taste in classical Flemish-style art (as we see in a set change), is prompted to query Serge’s sanity and what would motivate him to such an extravagant purchase. Declaring it “a white piece of shit”, having always believed that his own taste has influenced his friend, Marc appears to be offended by the fact that Serge’s new painting is an entire contradiction to everything he has ever professed.
The third friend, Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) is the glue that holds this comedy together. Torn between Serge and Marc who each want him to back up their own opinion of the painting, his diplomacy gradually weakens as he gets overwhelmed and increasingly red faced by his more pressing personal crisis, that of getting married. Discouraged to go ahead with the wedding, when the topic turns to women, Serge seizes his moment to insult Marc’s wife and things take a turn for the worse.
Running at 90 minutes without an interval, the comedy is gentle but constant and appears to engage the audience as successfully as ever, for the highly likeable star trio have a strong chemistry which makes the ups and downs of the friendship, and the individuality of the characters utterly believable. This Old Vic production directed by Ellie Jones (originally directed by Matthew Warchus), shows not a play that has been pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but one with universal themes that are still relevant and always will be. As the story progresses, the dialogue shifts further and further away from one man’s perception of modern art over another’s to a fascinating and often side-splitting study of long-term friendships – so much so that we almost forget about the painting entirely.
Art is not about our varying views on what is or is not a work to be valued at huge sums of money, or who follows what is in vogue at any given time simply for a status symbol not unlike a sports car, but more about how much honesty you can dish out to a friend without jeopardising your relationship. The sterile white canvas, which ends up being defaced to great comic effect by the end of the play, is merely a backdrop for a great deal of banter, debate and increasingly personal home truths, with Havers, Lawson and Tompkinson all going hell for leather and clearly enjoying every minute despite being on a gruellingly extensive UK tour. Whether or not you judge Art to be the masterpiece it is often hailed as is up to you, after all art is subjective.
Art at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 12th May 2018. Production images by Matt Crockett. For more information on forthcoming tour venues and tickets please visit the website.