A Glorious Brush With Modern Art Madness: Quentin Letts Sees a Bright Revival of the Satirical Show 'Art'

Daily Mail, 23 December 2016
By Quentin Letts

Yasmina Reza's 'Art', a satirical torpedo against modern abstract art, has been brightly revived at the Old Vic with Rufus Sewell on good form in one of the three roles.

This show is a taut, talkative, highbrow comedy. It is also, in its own way, rather depressing.

After all, it was written in 1994, has had worldwide success yet still the likes of Sir Nicholas Serota and his cronies at Tate Modern get away with applying the label of 'art' to the most ludicrous eyewash.

Playwright Reza skewers not so much the modern art world as the effect its fraudulence has had on us. Serge, who works in medicine, has just paid 100,000 for a completely white painting.

When his sardonic engineer friend Marc (Paul Ritter) sees it, he snorts with derision and says the painting is rubbish.

Mr Sewell's Serge airily says Marc 'does not have the training' to appreciate the piece. He is 'an enemy of modernism, a nostalgia merchant' who 'takes an incomprehensible pride in running down' modern art.

Their friend Yvan (Tim Key), a stationery salesman, dawdles in the middle of the argument. Poor Yvan is a bit of a failure. Marc calls him a coward for pretending to like the pointless painting.

Yvan, for much of the play, just tries to keep the peace he wishes life could do without questions of intellectual honesty.

The action takes place mainly in Serge's flat. Director Matthew Warchus stages the play on what we might call a grand minimalist scale, with exaggerated wall heights, but little colour and just some white furniture.

Some funky xylophone music punctuates the numerous scenes. The writing crackles like young wood on a fire (be warned: there is a bit of bad language) and the whole show is over in 90 minutes without an interval. My, I do love a succinct show.

Does Yasmina Reza take a stance on art? The nonsensical all-white canvas certainly provokes a big response, if that is one pre-condition for art. Marc, the critic of modernism, is shown to be a control freak.

Yet Serge, so keen to show his tolerance, is himself revealed to be tremendously bitchy and the apparently emollient Yvan is a bag of nerves. The three actors work really well, Mr Sewell all cheekbones and husky modishness, Mr Ritter finding a nice tone of scepticism and Mr Key winning applause for a riff about Yvan's disastrous wedding plans.

One minor criticism: a fist fight involving all three men is pretty feebly done.

After a long spell of argument, they start eating olives, the 'ping-ping-ping' of the discarded pips going into a metal bowl creating fine comic detail.

Here is a play that measures friendship against fashion. Can we really love someone who is in thrall to 'the rule of novelty and the rule of surprise'?

Can we love someone who wants to impose aesthetic values on us as a form of emotional ownership? Where does art come into all this? If it is meaningless, is it so wrong to say so, even if our friend has paid a fortune for it?

Good on the frequently fashion-fixated Old Vic whose trustees include Dame Julia Peyton-Jones, one of the very worst culprits of moronic modern art in London for staging this pleasingly peppery play.

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