Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Old Vic Theatre

Rufus Sewell (Serge) and Tim Key (Yvan) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Paul Ritter (Marc) and Rufus Sewell (Serge) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Rufus Sewell (Serge) Credit: Manuel Harlan

20 years ago, the Old Vic’s current Artistic Director Matthew Warchus enjoyed one of his greatest West End and subsequently Broadway hits with a cerebral play by a hitherto practically unknown Frenchwoman, Yasmina Reza.

‘Art’ became a cult hit amongst the intellectual classes but then percolated down to achieve much wider popularity thanks to repeated re-castings, eventually commissioning assorted soap opera stars and the like to portray three of the playwright’s unexceptional countrymen.

Your reviewer first saw the play with the original cast of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott and, thereafter, was afraid of breaking the magical spell that they had cast by viewing any of their potentially inferior successors.

Pleasingly, two decades on, the piece feels just as timely as it did on first viewing, while the original director’s latest cast steps up to the plate and does not disappoint.

The conceit is simple. Rufus’s Serge, a dermatologist, has just invested a cool €100,000 in a painting that he proudly wishes to show off. However, while his closest friends enjoy landscapes (admittedly Dali-esque) and still lifes, the new acquisition takes post-post-modernism to the limit.

In the words of his best friend Marc, played by Paul Ritter, the large canvas contains nothing but white paint, punctuated by diagonal white lines. To add to the effect, designer Mark Thompson has created the homes of the trio with no colour but white on the walls and furnishings. The only delineations are those favourite paintings.

While Serge believes that he has bought a masterpiece from the modish Antrios, popular at the Pompidou Centre, Marc’s loudly stated opinion is not so much negative as gratuitously and aggressively offensive.

The disagreement between these two might easily have been terminal to their 15-year friendship but, by the time that each has enlisted the support of wishy-washy arch-reconciler Ivan, comedian Tim Key benefiting from a superb ranting monologue and later a breathless tirade, the chance of ongoing friendship seems slim.

Through the remainder of the evening, power and alliances shift with remarkable but believable rapidity as the three men jostle for the upper hand, while cinema and dinner plans fall by the wayside as more serious issues moves centre-stage.

However, Yasmina Reza is a meticulous observer and depicter of human nature in the era of capitalism, particularly strong on the minutiae that make the world go round, especially amongst the intellectual classes.

Not only does she prick the balloon of artistic pretension with great wit, ensuring that at various times all three characters are made to look like pompous fools, the playwright goes a step further.

By the end of a very tightly scripted 90 minutes, not only do we have a deep understanding of the feelings and beliefs represented by the trio but can see in them people that we know. Dare one suggest it, those willing to look into their own souls might even identify significant aspects of themselves and their own behaviour, probably with some regret.

‘Art’ is very funny, insightful and at times chilling. As such, there is no reason to believe that this revival should not prove incredibly popular at the Old Vic and might just engender a longer life across the country and the globe as the original production did.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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