Writer: Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton)
Director: Ellie Jones (original director Matthew Warchus)
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
You can make what you want out of Yasmina Reza’s short play, Art. Is it a play about contemporary art commentary? Is it about relationships between middle-aged white men? Is it about how educated, middle-class people develop a polite veneer to cover their true feelings? Is it a relationship comedy or sharp social satire? Is it about the views of intelligentsia over those of the proletariat?
The 20 years since its initial staging, following the hype of the Young British Artist movement, clearly distances the play’s themes away from mocking contemporary art. We see the play’s potential more through the lens of observing the relationships between the three male characters.
Serge, Marc and Yvan are long-term friends. What brought them together in the first place is never explained, but we meet them here in their mature years. Serge, as a divorced, successful dermatologist, has an interest in contemporary art and has the money to fund it. Marc is an engineer, both practical and rational. Yvan, not quite so successful in his career as a salesman, but is about to take on a late-in-life marriage and move into his new wife’s family business.
Reza’s commentaries on relationships are well observed and Christopher Hampton’s sharp translation from French ensures its relevance for our own eyes and ears. The differences in personality and circumstances of Reza’s characters colour their outlook and their behaviour. Serge’s interest in modernism and relative wealth, sees him spending £200,000 on a blank white canvas by a fashionable artist. The indulgence and excess enrages the rational Marc. Marc’s initial passive-aggressive comments to Serge about his purchase quickly turn to outright accusations of pretentiousness. Both men draw in Yvan in the hope of pulling him to their side of the argument. This leaves Yvan to walk the hopeless tight-rope between the two opinionated men, trying to avoid conflict, or take sides, or indeed have any opinion at all. Reza’s carefully calculated script very quickly has both Serge and Marc turning on Yvan for his own weaknesses and inability to make decisions.
This production has a heavy-weight popular cast, each enthusiastically welcomed by the audience as they came on stage. Nigel Havers manages the balance of maintains Serge’s pretentiousness and our sympathy. Denis Lawson is superbly abrasive as the belligerent Marc. Stephen Tompkinson is the red-faced, victimised Yvan. It is a great cast and Tompkinson gets a well-deserved applause mid-way through the evening after a long monologue describing his failed attempts to avoid offence in the minefield of wedding planning and family politics.
Mark Thompson’s set is a stripped back apartment, suitably decorated in all shades of white. Three differentiated white chairs, one classical, one contemporary and one ‘comfie’, reflecting the characters, are set around a square white rug. This blank, naked backdrop to the exchanges between the characters provide little other distraction. Once hung the blank canvas could barely be seen. The focus was all on the relationships as we watched the quickfire exchanges between the characters.
This production of Art won’t set the world on fire but it is a welcome return for Reza’s sharp commentary on relationships and, with this heavy-weight cast, audience satisfaction is guaranteed.
Runs until 3 March 2018 | Image: Contributed