It was almost 16 years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last saw Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art; it was at the Whitehall Theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) and the constantly changing cast at the time consisted of Ben Cross, Michael Gyngell and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Mrs C adored it; I liked it a lot, but I remember thinking that it lost its way halfway through. So I was keen to see how it shapes up to someone in their latish fifties in comparison with their earlyish forties. When I realised it was to be staged in the large Derngate auditorium I wondered if it was a good match; I’d have thought it was much more appropriate for the intimacy of the Royal. But, surprisingly, it works really well on a larger stage; it’s almost as though it gains a grandeur simply by virtue of space.
In case you don’t know – modern art fanatic Serge has bought a painting for 200,000 Francs, and it’s a heck of a lot to pay, even for an Antios, from his 1970s period. The trouble is, the painting is just white. There are a few diagonal lines on it, and a little raised texture, but at the end of the day, it’s just white. Serge is enormously proud of it. He shows it to his friend Marc, a connoisseur of Flemish landscapes and portraits, who describes it as a piece of white shit. He shows it to their third friend Yvan, who’s not a connoisseur at all, who also recognises it as a piece of white shit but doesn’t want to offend Serge, so he tries to see in the painting all those aspects that appeal to the more cultured and experienced Serge. Yvan’s deliberate peace-keeping approach annoys the tetchy Marc; and consequently, their mutual friendship falters on the rocks.
In some regards the play is a fresh slant on The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the problem of whether to tell the pseud Serge that his painting, basically, has nothing on. From such a simple idea, Yasmine Reza (in a beautiful translation by Christopher Hampton) created a very deep and telling play about the nature of friendship, cultural superiority, art versus reason, fact versus fantasy, truth and falsehood, and the power of language. Words like deconstruction become a weapon in the struggle to establish a pecking order between Serge and Marc (Yvan’s already miles behind); the phrase the way she waves away cigarette smoke, for example, becomes a much more interesting sentence than the concept itself.
That all sounds very dry and dusty but the reason this play ran for eight years in the West End is because it is so incredibly funny; and it also lends itself superbly to the strengths of a range of actors, each of whom can develop their characters in a way that suits the individual performer. In a sense (and soz if this sounds pretentious) each character is a blank canvas on which the actor can paint his own personality, providing it falls roughly within the guidelines of Marc = pedantic, Serge = artistically pompous, Yvan = ordinary Everyman. This touring production has a terrific cast, who capture our attention from the start and give three brilliant performances.
Denis Lawson gives a superb performance as the irascible Marc, with a clipped, no-nonsense delivery and the confident air of someone who always sees things in black and white (white mainly in this play). Nigel Havers is hilarious from the start as Serge, with his brilliant facial expressions and desperate need for approval from the others. Stephen Tompkinson’s Yvan is a wholly recognisable account of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who frankly couldn’t give a toss about the painting but does care deeply about his friends. All three work together incredibly well.
There’s a scene towards the end that really challenges the audience as to how they feel about a) valuable paintings, b) this particular painting and c) to what extent you would trust your friend to do the right thing. When the friend doesn’t do the right thing, the gasp of horror from the audience is deafening. And then, the scene concludes with the biggest belly laugh of the night. Beautifully performed, and masterfully created by Reza/Hampton.
So how did this shape up, sixteen years since I last saw it? I thought it was brilliant. I got much more out of it this time; I’m not sure if that’s because of the performances or my own greater maturity (no honestly), but whatever, I’d really recommend this show. This Old Vic production has already been on a fairly extensive tour and has just three more stops after Northampton, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Canterbury. You must go!
P. S. By the end of the play I realised that I had become rather attached to the painting. There was something about its texture and essential whiteness that resonated within me. Maybe that Antios was on to something. However, I did see it more as a £29.99 job from the TK Maxx Home department than 200k.
Production photos by Matt Crockett