Art

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Mathew Warchus' revival of Yasmina Reza's clever and thoughtful French comedy, Art.

Art

A sharp, witty, thoughtful play about friendship, prejudice and tolerance is how you could describe Yasmina Reza’s chic 90-minute French comedy Art, which became a huge hit when it was first staged 20 years ago and now returns in a immaculate revival, directed by Mathew Warchus, at the Old Vic Theatre.

Serge, a well-to-do Parisian dermatologist, buys an all-white painting for 100,000 Euros, to the scoffing disapproval of Marc, an engineer friend and the helpless confusion of stationery sales agent Yvan, resulting in an acerbic war of words and deepening rifts. Marc, in particular is angry at what he considers Serge’s pretension. Yvan, on the other hand, tries to keep the peace as he contends with his upcoming wedding. Yet the heated debate about the contentious canvas brings to the surface long standing tensions between the trio as they dig ruthlessly at each other’s insecurities.

Aided by a sparkling, translation by Christopher Hampton, this play about taste and the desire to have other people agree with you still seems fresh and relevant today, at a time when pretentious artworks sell at astronomical prices. The piece also raises personal issues such as: when should you tell the truth? And when should you lie because that is the route to keeping the peace and keeping your friendship intact? What is however clear, is that Reza is adept at proving an unflinching look at human beings with all their flaws and exposing the foolishness in humanity.

The evening is structured around short, snappy scenes and direct addresses before the explosive, extended finale. It may lack substance but is nevertheless coolly efficient like a painting that initially seems slight but demands you look beneath the surface.

Rufus Sewell, looking remarkably boyish as the impulsive art buyer, shades Serge’s complacency, hurt and retaliatory swipes with fine brushstrokes, by turns sneering and brittle. Paul Ritter shows that Marc’s provocative philistinism is born of genuine dismay that Serge might be an intellectual fraud and their friendship just a big blank. Comedian Tim Key impresses as Yvan, the dimmer, more pliable and fundamentally more decent of the bunch.

This then, could be considered a big small play, deceptively simple, yet rich with ideas and resonate with meaning.

Art

Playing at the Old Vic until February 18 2017

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