Promoted as ‘one of the most successful comedies ever’, the history of Yasmina Reza’s Art is highly impressive, and The Old Vic’s current touring production is no different.
Having won multiple awards in its 24-year existence – including the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play – the plot focuses on three friends and their disagreement over the purchase of a very expensive painting composed of merely a white canvas with fine white lines.
Art has had its fair share of famous faces play the trio of friends over the years, and this revival by The Old Vic is no different. Nigel Havers (Coronation Street, Benidorm), Denis Lawson (New Tricks, Bleak House) and Stephen Tompkinson (Wild At Heart, DCI Banks) play the roles of Serge, Marc and Yvan respectively with great energy, bouncing with ease between Reza’s unusual structure of scenes interspersed with to-the-audience monologues.
Though originally written in Reza’s native French (translated into English by Christopher Hampton), little of the comedy is lost in translation, and jokes successfully land with precise comic timing, dynamic vocal emphasis and lively physicality – particularly through Tompkinson’s performance as the hapless Yvan.
With a set as minimal as the contentious painting, Ellie Jones’ direction combined with Mark Thompson’s design allows the performances to shine through, and the brief interludes of elevator music contribute to the blank canvas created by the production’s overall design, onto which larger ideas are projected through the script.
The focus of the play on the modernist painting purchased by Serge brings into question the subjectivity of art, and the subsequent falling out that occurs due to this purchase examines the possible subjectivity of friendship. Even audience members who may have scoffed at the white canvas at first are made to rethink the painting’s artistry once the lifelong friendship of the three men becomes at risk, with Marc even claiming that the painting has replaced him in Serge’s eyes. Scenes of conflict are punctuated by periods of silence that give both audience and characters alike space to reflect on what’s happened.
Art expertly presents profound questions on the true value of art and friendship in a truly comedic way, keenly balancing entertainment with philosophy to create a piece of theatre that both amuses and provokes thought.