David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers with the Old Vic
The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth
Translated from Yasmina Reza’s native French, Art was a mid-'90s hit, running for years on the West End and beyond. Household names such as Albert Finney, Tom Courtney, Alan Alda, George Segal and, later, Rufus Sewell were cast and numerous awards and nominations for script, actors, lighting, set, direction and production were duly collected.
In fact, winning the 1997 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy rather bemused the satirist who maintains she wrote a tragedy and that laughter is problematic, changing the profundity of a play. Perhaps it is the translation that is my problem with it: whether the translation between languages or from tragedy to comedy or the director’s translation or, indeed, the audience’s translation.
With a strong cast needing no introduction, it’s a sell-out. And the audience on press night laughed and, with a sharp intake of breath at the appropriate moment, clearly shelved its earlier modern art scepticism and bought into the £200,000 price tag of a white on white ‘masterpiece’, the catalyst for the brutal implosion of a 25-year friendship.
Suave Serge (Nigel Havers of course) has succumbed to a sudden urge to buy an expensive painting. An old master in modern terms he says. A black-blue / white-gold dress-type talking point perhaps or just ‘white shit’ as labelled by his irascible friend, moody Marc (Denis Lawson), it matters not: the polarised positions pull the pin on a veritable hand grenade of mounting frustrations and years of bottled-up irritation—and poor vacillating Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) is stuck in the middle.
And that is it. A simple white set, a white canvas, artistic Venetian blind shadow lighting, some dodgy '80s sitcom sound effects and two belligerent men (plus a punchbag) circling, verbally ripping shreds out of each other, ganging up on one another and justifying themselves in wordy asides to the audience. Or in silence—where the battle of the olives is a highlight.
Urbane / pretentious Serge is battered for a lack of judgment, the need to book his time through his secretary and his monastic apartment—although he will, in future, get the children every weekend; mercurial Marc is slated for atrophying, his boring classicism and for his repellent homeopathy-promoting wife, whose way of waving away cigarette smoke is annoying beyond belief while poor ‘spineless amoebic’ Yvan will seemingly need more than his current therapy to survive marriage to a Gorgon and the war of the pathological step-mothers.
All three are believable in role and handle the rather clunky script well but the piece just doesn’t flow as lengthy turns are politely taken, the courtesy of hearing each other's rant without interruption is not credible and the price of continued friendship is measured in washable felt tip pen.
Not for me but I would seem to be in the minority.
Reviewer: Karen Bussell