Writer: Yasmina Reza
Translated by: Christopher Hampton
Director: Ellie Jones
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
Some plays belong to either a particular place or a particular time and don’t manage to travel well. Art clearly isn’t one of those plays. Almost 25 years since it first opened in Paris, it retains a contemporary feel and still seems as if it could be set in almost any major city in the world.
The play has a simple premise, the long-standing friendship of three middle aged men is tested when one of them spends £200,000 on a painting that another one of them doesn’t like. Serge is the man who has bought the painting, Marc is the friend who doesn’t like it. Into this environment comes the third friend, Yvan, who may like the painting but could equally hate it, or more likely have no strong opinion either way, since he is reluctant to commit to making public declarations on anything.
Over a series of scenes in the three men’s apartments, arguments over the painting spill over into arguments about their friendship, partners, personalities and almost anything else that comes to mind. For Serge and Marc, the initial prize seems to be getting Yvan on their side, but when Yvan appears to be on both of their sides, they turn on him, almost oblivious to his own problems with an approaching wedding that requires a careful balancing act in constructing a guest list that doesn’t offend any of the parents or stepparents, and that also doesn’t destroy his relationship with his soon to be wife.
On the surface of it, it may sound a little insubstantial, but the genius in the writing is how from this basic set up, Yasmina Reza manages to explore and expose so many different aspects of modern life and relationships. For a start, the art work in question is a white painting with white stripes, which calls into question our attitude towards art and the battle between traditional and modernist viewpoints. Added to this is the ease with which a dispute over a painting can escalate into something that can destroy a friendship of such long standing. Completing the mix is the sense that the friendship itself may have long since run its natural course balanced against an equal feeling that the three men have been biting their lips about the grievances they have with each other for several years rather than put the friendship at risk.
Nigel Havers as Serge conveys the pompous air of a man who can afford to pay £200,000 for a piece of art whilst also being genuinely surprised that anyone would question his judgment. Dennis Lawson as Marc is convincing as someone for whom being down to earth is a conscious choice and something he also finds hard to pull off. Stephen Tompkinson as Yvan may initially appear to merely be the foil to the other two, but soon reveals himself to be a far more nuanced character with his own struggles being far more grounded in reality than either of theirs.
It’s a play that is both funny and thoughtful. While it may at times be over heavy on language and discussion at the expense of real action, it never feels like it is dragging and the ninety minutes you spend in the company of the three men flies past quickly.
Runs until 16 February 2019 then touring | Image: Contributed