You can study a fine painting dozens of times and still notice something new in the nuances, brush strokes and composition with each viewing, in much the same way that, no matter how many times I watch Yasmina Reza’s comedy masterpiece, Art, I find something revelatory in every performance.
It helps that, since 1996, when it premiered in the West End, Art has attracted the cream of British acting to the roles of Serge, Marc and Yvan, three friends who end up questioning the nature of their relationship when one buys a F200,000 (£147,000) white painting.
It ran for eight years in London before touring with the cast changing every few months, each new trio bringing their own interpretation to her deliciously satirical dialogue that had been lovingly translated by Christopher Hampton.
The production returned briefly to the Old Vic in 2016 and a touring production, starring Nigel Havers, Stephen Tompkinson and Denis Lawson has been entertaining audiences around the UK since February.
Last night it opened at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre and it was disappointing to see such a depleted crowd because Art really is one of the finest comedies ever written and it had the auditorium laughing from the opening lines.
It’s interesting to read, in the production’s programme notes, that Reza, who is French, was appalled that us Brits actually laughed at her play when it first opened.
She thought that her elegant work transcended common jollity and that the writing needed to be listened to and absorbed. That it was a shrewd satire and not a farce.
But laugh we have done, and so have theatre-goers in every other country it has played. This is one of those rare theatrical treats that has proved a commercially successful crowd-pleaser and artistically sophisticated, winning multiple awards.
Christopher Hampton kept Art set in France, as per Reza’s original piece, where we meet three middle-aged Parisians who have seemingly enjoyed a 25-year friendship through thick and thin.
You think you know someone and then something happens that makes you wonder if you’ve ever really known them at all. Before you know it war breaks out and it’s handbags at dawn, or in this case, a bit of man-slapping and verbal parrying.
Havers has slipped effortlessly back into playing Serge, a role he’s revisiting after appearing in the original touring production. Serge likes to ingratiate himself with the fashionable.
He’s a pretentious poseur who thinks that the dilettantes he is cultivating as friends will consider him a serious connoisseur now that he has recklessly spent a fortune on a piece of modern art.
“You paid F200,000 for this shit!?” says Marc, incredulously. Marc, a classicist, snob and sanctimonious prig, thinks that he is the only one with taste, and that Serge and their other friend, Yvan, should always defer to him.
Suddenly Serge has done something that threatens the status quo and Marc (Denis Lawson) is furious. His condescension unabated.
Yvan finds himself trying to placate both men while simultaneously coping with the stress of an up-coming marriage and the heady excitement of a new job selling stationery.
The dynamics change throughout the 80-minute play with the men suddenly faced with the realisation that their enduring friendship may be over.
For Yvan that’s too much to contemplate. He implores Marc and Serge to make up – but is it too late?
There are a couple of real stand-out moments in Art and one falls to Stephen Tomkinson’s lonely, excitable, tense Yvan, who bursts into Serge’s rather austere apartment and embarks on a rant, lasting several minutes, while Serge and Marc stand listening impassively.
It is a terrific moment and one which has the audience applauding and convulsed with laughter, as much for Tompkinson’s remarkable ability to remember what must be several pages of dialogue, and perform it at speed without barely a pause, as its undoubted comedy value.
Indeed, Tompkinson, who is both a fine comedy actor and a convincing, dour, straight-man in TV dramas, provides the emotional heart to Art, his face instantly betraying a mess of emotions that range from fear and desperation, to resignation and despair.
Yvan is straight-talking, honest, and open while Marc and Serge have, perhaps not been entirely honest with each other, each playing a part rather than admitting that they have nothing in common.
‘What brought us together, what keeps us together?’ asks Yvan, probably something we all wonder at some point in our lives.
The writing is sophisticated, intelligent and blisteringly funny, performed by three quality actors whose timing is impeccable and delivery is flawless while the direction – here by Ellie Jones – is pacy and dynamic.
I still don’t like Mark Thompson’s set much, I never have. There are three huge white walls and three chairs, each in the style of the men they serve – classical, comfortable and cooly fashionable, plus a coffee table.
On the vast Derngate stage the lack of any soft furnishings results in the cast’s voices echoing around the theatre. The quality of sound is terrible.
Would three British hedge fund traders, meeting over a pint in the pub to talk about the acquisition of, say, a £1.25m Bugatti Veyron or Tracey Emin’s £2.2m unmade bed, behave in the same way or be just as funny? Unlikely.
Cannot be bettered. Art runs at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday before touring to Birmingham Hippodrome, Wales Millennium Centre and Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre where the tour ends.
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Review - Yasmina Reza's comedy masterpiece, Art, is still a crowd-pleaser more than 20 years after its West End premiere, a portrait of friendship under stress that is painted with fine brushstrokes and flawless performances.