Writer: Yasmina Reza
Director: Ellie Jones
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Salford’s Lowry theatre hosts Yasmina Reza’s playful examination of modern art, and the dynamics between old friends. With Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin now national treasures rather than artistic revolutionaries, some of the intensity may have been removed from the debate about modernist art, but the interaction between the three protagonists remains refreshingly sharp. “A Dermatologist, an Engineer, and a Stationery Salesman walk into an art gallery” might not have been the launch point for a thousand jokes, but it serves Reza extremely well in setting up the comedic interplay which follows.
This is comedy driven by character and language, and it does not overstate Reza’s talent to invite comparison, at times, with Stoppard and Pinter. The three friends, Serge, Marc, and Yvan, have very different personalities and outlooks, but all have a great facility with language to weaponise their arguments and exchanges, either as club or rapier. The ostensible catalyst for their contradictions is the extravagant purchase by Nigel Havers’ Serge, of a totally white canvas by a lionised modern artist. Behind this, lurk deeper crevasses in the fabric of their 25 year relationships, revealed as the play progresses.
Denis Lawson’s Marc is singularly unimpressed by both the artwork, which he pronounces to be “white shit”, and the gesture of acquisition itself, the act of a gullible pseud. Yvan, played by Stephen Tomkinson, is the constant conciliator, trying to occupy the no-man’s-land between his friends’ battle lines, and frequently shot by both sides. He revels in his status as the intellectual lightweight of the trio, and is less preoccupied by his friends’ sparring than the open warfare breaking out among his family around the arrangements for his forthcoming wedding.
The three protagonists intersperse their arguments with asides or brief monologues to the audience, clarifying their irritations and grievances. These direct revelations serve to undercut the veneer of reasoned debate with a sharp satirical edge. Eventually, the veneer itself breaks down into a clumsy physical struggle, as personal prejudices and festering resentments take over.
Despite the seething conflicts between the characters, and the brittle brilliance of the language, the play mainly consists of three middle-aged men in suits standing around a room talking to one another. It offers limited visual excitement, other than the occasional appearance of the much-debated white canvas. The fact that this production is as slick as one of Nigel Havers’ blazers ensures that the momentum is maintained throughout. Scene changes are seamless, lighting cues are sharp and spotlit monologues draw none of the energy from the piece.
The vast white box set is antiseptic and arctic. Three white armchairs of different styles frame a clinically white coffee table. Behind, white walls rise to such a dizzy height that any domestic scale is lost. Were it not for the occasional bowl of olives on offer, the scene might as easily be a posh London gallery. The all-too-human, messy, relationships in the foreground stand in sharp contrast with and to the austere artistic purity of their surroundings.
The three actors are on stage together for almost the whole of the performance, so its success hinges on their ability to differentiate their characters and play off one another to achieve the essential comic, and tragi-comic effects. Seasoned actors of the calibre of Havers, Lawson, and Tomkinson, deliver exactly what is required, with scarcely any playing to the gallery, even when the script gave licence.
Yasmina Reza’s “Art” is a miniature piece, playing for less than 90 minutes without an interval. But it is expertly drawn together by highly skilled creative and technical support, and given a high gloss finish by the talented cast.
Runs until 31 March 2018 then touring nationwide | Image: Contributed