'Art' Review – Rufus Sewell Shines in Finely Shaded Character Study

Guardian, 21 December 2016
By Michael Billington

4 / 5 stars

Life may sometimes be long but Yasmina Reza’s 'Art' is short: a mere 90 minutes. But it packs a lot in and, although Rufus Sewell brings his charismatic presence to the role of Serge, the striking fact about Matthew Warchus’s revival is the delicate balance it preserves between Reza’s three characters. A play that in 1996 eventually turned into a revolving door for celebrities can now be seen in all its complex purity.

Purity is the issue, since the starting point is Serge’s purchase of an all-white painting for €100,000 (half the sum quoted in Christopher Hampton’s translation the first time around). Serge’s old chum Marc (Paul Ritter) is appalled, while their mutual friend Yvan (Tim Key) swings both ways in his opinions. Instantly this opens up all kinds of questions about the subjectivity of taste and the inflation of the art market. “What’s aught but as ’tis valued?” asks Shakespeare, and Reza’s play makes us wonder whether Marc’s rage is fuelled by the absurdity of the price or the apparent emptiness of the canvas.

But Reza also raises questions about the nature of friendship and the role of honesty in society. This revival makes one acutely aware that Serge in the past was awed by Marc’s free-thinking candour and is now disillusioned. Asked by Serge why he can’t simply love people as they are, Marc replies: “What are they, except my faith in their potential?” – a slight change to the published text that highlights the exacting nature of Marc’s friendship. Like Molière in 'The Misanthrope', Reza also asks how we should function in the world. Is it better to always speak our mind or, like the accommodating Yvan, to tell lies as white as Serge’s painting? What emerges from this revival is the sharp distinction between the three characters.

Sewell’s Serge has a touch of the fastidious poseur. He scrutinises the canvas in the studied manner of an art expert and prissily tells Marc: “You’re not in the right place.” Sewell also suggests the vanity of a man who readily embraces everything new and self-consciously talks of playing his part “in the fundamental dynamic of evolution”. Ritter’s Marc, in contrast, is a hard-nosed cynic who prides himself on not being tricked, and a conventional classicist who keeps a mediocre Flemish painting on his walls.

Just as you start to wonder what the two men ever had in common, the production slyly hints that Ritter’s Marc was once sexually enthralled by the raffish glamour of Serge.

Among many other things, Reza’s play follows Pinter’s 'The Caretaker' in depicting the shifting power-alliances within a male trio. Key’s Yvan is first enlisted as an ally by the other two and then treated as a punchbag. Simultaneously, he is revealed to be a total neurotic, obsessed by the complications of his impending marriage. The three actors, even though Key occasionally swallows his lines, are all very good, and both Warchus’s production and Mark Thompson’s design are immaculate in their conception.

Is Reza’s play, in the end, a modern classic or a modish crowdpleaser? I lean to the former view but the answer, as with Serge’s enigmatic painting, lies in the eye of the beholder.

At the Old Vic, London, until 18 February. Box office: 0844-871 7628.

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