Writer: Yazmina Reza
Translator: Christopher Hampton
Music: Gary Yershon
Director: Ellie Jones
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
Art always gives the appearance of being a quintessentially middle-class English drama, performed by traditional middle-aged actors on a contemporary set. However, it is somewhat surprising to learn that the work was originally written in French by Yasmina Reza, a Russian/Iranian/Hungarian/Jewish playwright from Paris. Translator Christopher Hampson came across Art playing in the Champs Elysee, purchased a (returned) ticket, and was impressed enough to want to buy the rights to it. In fact, Sean Connery owned the rights, but hired Christopher to do a translation, and in 1996 the first performance in English was put on in Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End. The rest is history as they say, and Art is still a very popular play over 20 years later.
The production at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield has three very well-known actors in the roles of Serge, Marc and Yvan: Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson respectively. They are all of course very accomplished actors who tackle the roles impeccably, proving that all a production really needs is good casting. The scenery and props are very minimal, very colourless, but the three men on stage provide all the background and action to carry the work along.
Essentially the story revolves around a work of art that Serge has purchased for a very large amount of money. The Emperor’s New Clothes springs to mind when Serge enthuses over how wonderful the ‘painting’ is: an Andrios, on a white background, with white diagonal lines. It’s basically a blank canvas, but he isn’t going to admit that. Proudly he shows his two long-term friends, Marc and Yvan. Marc never pretends to be impressed and thinks his friend a fool for being taken in. Yvan tries to see the attraction at first, maybe to be polite because he’s a people-pleaser, but totally fails in the end.
The piece of art is only a minor component of this production though. The work is really exploring the relationship between old friends, and how this changes as situations evolve. Marc appears to be annoyed that his friend has the means to be able to pay such a large sum for a picture, maybe there’s jealousy creeping in? Yvan just wants to be a peacemaker and get his old comfortable friendship zone back. After all, he has multiple problems with his impending marriage. Sobbing into Serge’s (green) towel, he bemoans the fact that he needs the support of his mates to cope with the numerous relatives who are invading his wedding. Who will look after him if his dependable witness friends don’t care anymore? Stephen Tompkinson’s extended rant about the mothers, stepmothers and other assorted characters involved in his wedding is probably one of the best performances around in theatre at the present time. It’s a monologue delivered at such speed, and with such passion and comedic desperation, one has to wonder how he gets through it without blowing a gasket.
The friendship is sorely tested throughout the performance. These three men seem to be well brought up guys who have led successful lives along very different paths from one another but have enjoyed real closeness that has helped them through trials they have encountered. Can something as stupid as a white picture ruin all that? It appears that maybe it could, and when Marc wields a blue marker pen, collective breath is held… but the trio ends up laughing, and all is not lost. The final scene sees the three men illuminated individually in blue, green and red, proving that although we are all different we are drawn together, and that blank canvas is a starting point.
Go see Art, it’s a bit different, but it’s funny. There’s a feeling around that the play is “pretentious” and “has no story”, but really it’s what each person makes of it, and the basic message is clear to everyone: friendship is precious, priceless and enduring.
Runs until Saturday 21 April 2018 | Image: Contributed