Twenty years ago a small play about a big white painting proved a huge hit with audiences. It wasn’t necessarily due to the absurdity of a sane person spending hard earned cash on a virtually blank canvas but more to do with what lay underneath the topcoat.
Rub away the glossy veneer and you expose the work’s weaknesses and the multiple layers of its construction. That’s pretty much the same for friendships.
Yasmina Reza’sArt is a comic masterpiece that has returned to London with a flourish in no little part to the production securing, as the lead, the country’s homme du jour.
Rufus Sewell has been thrust to the fore and is now male crumpet of choice thanks to his seductive turn as Lord Melbourne in ITV’s Victoria.
And, as wonderful as his co-stars – Tim Key and Paul Ritter – are (and they are), there’s a huge chunk of the nightly audience at The Old Vic who are simply there to see this husky voiced, impossibly handsome and undoubtedly talented actor in the flesh – so to speak.
They probably wished that Reza had taken a Stubbs as her theme in the hope that he’d reprise his appearance in riding breeches and frock coat.
But Art contemplates a much more modern work. A five feet by four feet white canvas that has diagonal white lines on it. The playwright had seen such a painting in a friend’s home and had laughed out loud at her chum’s purchase. Thankfully her pal laughed too.
But the visit, and the painting, gave her an idea for a play and Christopher Hampton’s immaculate translation of Art, aided by frequent cast changes, opened in the West End in 1996 and remained there for eight years.
This “new” production feels like deja vu but that’s not a bad thing. Why tinker with something that was perfect to begin with?
Producer, David Pugh, has assembled his original team to stage this 20th anniversary production. Matthew Warchus, now the Old Vic’s artistic director, is directing and even Mark Thompson’s minimalist apartment is reassuringly familiar.
Getting Sewell is a stroke of luck but, actually, all three men are perfectly cast. Art is a story of friendship that is tested to the limit when one of them, the rather pompous Serge (Sewell), splashes out, in a moment of madness, a vast sum of money on a white painting.
It’s a midlife crisis thing. He’s convinced himself that it is a good investment – but what will his friends of 15 years think?
Serge doesn’t have long to wait. Traditionalist Marc is appalled, thinking the artwork is some sort of joke. Yvan, who has problems enough of his own with an upcoming marriage to arrange, just wants to remain friends with both men.
The dynamics change throughout the 90 minute play with sides taken, opinions given and tempers frayed.
One outstanding moment is when Yvan loses the plot and rants for about five minutes, his voice getting increasingly higher and more stressed.
The amount of dialogue Tim Key – and all the Yvans before him – have to learn, just for that moment, is colossal and it wins deserved applause. The other two stand and listen in admiration as their mate blows a gasket in spectacular style.
You wonder what drew Marc, Serge and Yvan together in the first place as they are so different but, measured against our own friendships, they’re right. Sometimes there’s no explanation.
Marc and Serge are both strong personalities, both, in their own ways, smug, insensitive, and contemptuous of other opinions. Yvan is the joker in the pack, often overlooked, but who binds the trio together.
A welcome return of a favourite work of Art.
Running at the Old Vic until February 18.
Yasmina Reza’s comic masterpiece has lost none of its edge. This 20th anniversary production of Art at The Old Vic is a modern masterpiece.