'Art': Sewell, Ritter And Key Give Old Masterpiece A Fresh Lick Of Paint

Londonist, 24 December 2016
By Neil Dowden

4 / 5 stars

The set-up of Yasmina Reza's international award-winning hit 'Art' here given a 20th anniversary revival by the same creative team who staged the first UK production is simple. After Serge (Rufus Sewell) buys a painting of white stripes on a white background by a well-known contemporary artist for a hundred thousand euros, he has a big bust-up with his friend Marc (Paul Ritter), who regards it as "shit". Mutual buddy Yvan (Tim Key) tries to mollify them but becomes embroiled in a bitter argument that threatens to break up their long-term friendship.

Reza elaborates the initial premise with intricate, almost geometrical precision in a series of short scenes involving monologues and duologues with asides, followed by a longer final scene featuring all three characters together, before a brief epilogue. This 'big small play' of 90 interval-less minutes is a deft comedy of manners that packs in quite a lot of serious ideas.

It does of course touch on modern art, suggesting that so much depends on the viewer's personal perspective (Serge represents the pretentious end of the scale, Marc the philistine end). It also satirises over-inflated art-market prices, which soared in the 90s (and remain absurdly high today), though value is also subjective. But the main theme is friendship; in particular, male friendship with its tensions, rivalries and awkward intimacy. A sort of power struggle with possible homoerotic undertones develops between Serge and his erstwhile mentor Marc, while the haplessly vacillating Yvan is caught in the middle, acting sometimes as a peacemaker, other times as a punch bag.

Christopher Hampton's beautifully precise translation from the French allows Reza's wit to shine. Director Matthew Warchus captures the subtleties of the psychological interplay as well as getting the maximum amount of laughs out of what is a very funny play. Mark Thompson's minimalist set changes just the artwork for each friend's apartment (a traditional landscape for Marc, a still life painted by his father for Yvan, in addition to Serge's notorious white abstract), while Hugh Vanstone's slanted light beams project shadows on the unadorned walls.

The cast superbly convey the shifting dynamics between the characters. It's ambivalent whether Sewell's coolly detached divorcee is buying into the painting itself or just fancies himself as a collector. Ritter's outrageously cynical and controlling Marc openly admits he "believes in nothing", though he is evidently emotionally involved with Serge. Both turn on the neurotically complaisant and indecisive Yvan, given a hilariously scene-stealing performance by Tim Key, as they advise him not to go through with his imminent wedding ... but are they motivated by true friendship?

'Art' is on at the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, SE1 8NB until 18 February. Tickets 12?65. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

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