Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton
Regent, Ipswich, and touring
Art was famously 'discovered' in Paris by Sean Connery, translated into English by Christopher Hampton - who did a similarly popular job on Leclos' Dangerous Liaisons - and then went on to win top theatre awards in both Britain and the US. Since its arrival in London in 1996, regular visitors to the capital will have seen billboards with the familiar red, green and yellow letters above an ever-changing cast of well-known personalities from screens large and small. It's become a three-star vehicle, yet this casting policy, and the sizeable audiences it attracts, seems to work against the grain of a play which is a chamber piece rather than a 'show'.
In this Harrogate Theatre production currently on tour, Serge, Marc and Yvan are played by Christopher Cazenove, John Duttine and Les Dennis, and the cavernous Regent Theatre was packed to the rafters with what looked like a studio audience for Family Fortunes. We had to be herded into our seats with a countdown of 5, 3 and 1 minute to go, and even then it was a late kick-off. It's a play of 80 minutes with no interval, so the bars were doing some brisk pre-show business.
Mark Thompson's elegant set of high white wall, three differently-styled chairs and a chunky farmhouse-type coffee table suggests that we're about to witness either the verbal equivalent of a Beethoven trio, or the three bears grumbling over their porridge. In the event, Art gives us moments of both, though the meal, when it comes, is silent but for the 'ping' of discarded olive pips on china.
Serge has spent a fortune on a painting, a 5 by 4 frameless white on white, over which he enthuses ecstatically. It's modern, up-to-date, of its time, and these are qualities Serge values. His old friend Marc thinks it's 'shit'. Marc's flat has a painting of a misty landscape seen through windows, surrounded by a thick square frame, and Marc vigorously questions and derides Serge's taste. Their friend Yvan, in whose flat hangs a picture of three plump pears, clearly has no taste. What he wants is peace; peace between his friends and peace in his personal life - and he suffers the inevitable fate of the peacemaker when he's injured trying to resolve the fracas between the other parties.
The white canvas of Serge's painting becomes the ground on which these three contrasting characters draw themselves as the play proceeds. They reveal their passions and prejudices, their tempers and temperaments; they sketch in their private lives and the preoccupations of late-twentieth-century manhood; and in doing so they display for us the alternately touching, sad, treacherous and comical dynamics of friendship.
But by casting stars of the small screen in this stage play, with the large audiences and big venues this gives rise to, we end up with the theatrical equivalent of listening to chamber music at Wembley Stadium. However competent the players - and they are competent - the acoustics and ambience of a large theatre are totally unsuitable. With little visual drama, the understanding and enjoyment absolutely depends on being able to hear every word, yet much of the time the dialogue teeters on the very edge of audibility. The brisk, naturalistic delivery that seems appropriate to the play may need to be rethought for the theatres it visits on this tour; it doesn't travel effectively across a vast, full auditorium, and much of the significance of the friends' exchanges is lost in the ether.
The real art of the evening is to recover the subtle and clever play over which a personality-based commercial entertainment has been rather crudely drawn.
"Art" plays at the Regent, Irpswich until 11th October. The tour continues until till 29th November
Reviewer: Jill Sharp