Art, at the Old Vic in London, is a play about art and friendship, but mostly about friendship. Don’t let the 5ft by 4ft white canvas with white stripes on a white background – the “art” of the play – distract you. The play focuses on the friendship between three men, Serge (Rufus Sewell), a divorced dermatologist; Marc (Paul Ritter), an engineer and Serge’s long-standing friend and mentor; and Yvan (Tim Key), a somewhat downtrodden stationer about to get married.
The art itself is a modernist canvas circa the 1970s bought by Serge, played superbly by Sewell with the smugness and irritation one might expect of someone who’s just splashed out €100,000 on a piece of art. Marc, whom Ritter makes wonderfully gregarious, calls the art “a piece of white s—”.
Caught in the middle is Yvan, whom Key makes at times visceral and other times quite pathetic. Yvan has problems of his own but haplessly attempts reconciliation, only to be savaged by the other two.
Yasmina Reza’s play uses art in an accessible and humorous way as a foil to explore the complexity of male friendship. The result is one those times when friends get into arguments and it all gets out of hand. The precipice these friends reach is summed up in Marc’s anger as he exclaims: “The older I get, the more offensive I hope to become.” The friends become far removed from the definition offered by Aquinas of friendship as “mutual benevolent love on a common ground, and has as its normal rule, unselfishness”.
However, the companions do manage to pull themselves back to find common ground over the painting.
Art was a huge hit in the 1990s, when I saw it with the original London cast of Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott, and it ran for eight years. The same creative team is behind this production, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, with Matthew Warchus directing, Mark Thompson’s design and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting.
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