What would you do if an old friend, who may be financially well-off but is no multi-millionaire, spent one hundred thousand euros on a painting? And what if that painting consisted of nothing more than some diagonal white lines imprinted on a white canvas? This is the scenario that Yasmina Reza’s one-act play, Art, explores with both humour and poignant drama. Originally written in French, the first English translation of the play opened in London in 1996. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the show making it across the Channel, Christopher Hampton’s original translation of Art is once again showing in London: under the direction of Matthew Warchus at The Old Vic until the 18th of February. It is still as enjoyable as ever, and definitely worth catching before the end of the run.
Following the story of three old friends at transitional points in their lives, Art starts off with well-paced humour as Marc (played by Paul Ritter) and Serge (Rufus Sewell) discuss their different opinions on Serge’s recent phenomenally expensive picture: “it’s white” observes Marc blankly, hoping that Serge will agree his purchase is ridiculous and pretentious. This humerous tone recurs often throughout the play, but it is used intelligently: embedded within a script that eloquently depicts old friendships brought to the brink of collapse to create a truly engaging piece of theatre.
Marc and Serge’s mutual friend Yvan (Tim Key) enters the fray as he is forced into mediating his friends’ artistic dispute – which quickly loses its initial humour and descends into personal attacks – whilst at the same time in his own crisis of trying to organise his upcoming wedding. Yvan’s own marital mayhem adds further comedy to Art, but the play never becomes farcical; its comic moments are used to create distinct moments of pathos. This is aided greatly by the chemistry between the three actors on stage, and progressively humour is used by the characters in a more pointed and aggressive fashion. Marc and Serge try to make jokes at each other’s expense, vying for Yvan to choose a side, and Yvan himself gets more and more irate about his own problems being ignored at the expense of his friends’ dispute.
Warchus’s direction highlights not only the artistic dispute central to the plot of the self-referentially named Art, but also the way Reza’s play uses artistic taste on a more general level as a means for characterisation. Each character is defined by their own artistic tastes: the minimalist set for the production is simply a white-walled front room, and which of the three characters’ houses we are in at any one point is signified only by the changing of the picture on the back wall. It is this that allows the play to reach the heights it achieves in its exploration of friendship. As the characters are defined by their artistic tastes, Serge’s embrace of modernism and Marc’s rigid traditionalism become symbolic of the characters’ differing willingness to accept the inevitable change which comes with the passing of time. This gives an extra dimension to the (progressively less) humerous debates over whether Serge’s picture is a symbol of pretension, or whether it is something he has genuinely fallen in love with and therefore transcends its financial valuation. These discussions are themselves well-crafted, revealing passages about the state of the contemporary art world and the different sorts of value we place on aesthetics, but their true strength is to be found in Reza’s symbolic use of art and what this central dispute really represents.
Art avoids being what it very easily could have been: a self-indulgent examination of pretension in the art world set alongside a sit-com featuring clichéd jokes about wedding planning and relations with prospective in-laws. Instead, Reza’s script, Hampton’s translation, and Warchus’s direction balance the humour of seeing people who care(d) deeply for each other brought into deep conflict over something as seemingly trivial as which picture they prefer to hang on their living room wall, whilst exploring the emotional difficulties of old friends who have grown apart through the years and are trying to find out if any vestige of their previous love for each other remains. I am still undecided about Serge’s painting, but Art is certainly worth the ticket price.