A white rug, white coffee table, and three white chairs are contained within the stark set of Art. Three middle-aged, white men dissect the foundations of their 25-year-old relationship, which is thrown into question when Serge presents his newly-bought and absurdly expensive painting, a blank white canvas (surprise!). The product of a mid-life crisis? Perhaps. But to Serge and his two friends, it may mean the end to their friendship.
Translated from the original French into English by Christopher Hampton, Yasmina Reza’s writing is astounding. Whilst seeming to discuss contemporary art, this is really a play about friendship. The three friends, Serge (Nigel Havers), Marc (Denis Lawson) and Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson), have a very natural rapport with one another and with the audience, who are addressed directly throughout. Each character is uniquely well-defined, and whilst not always pleasant by nature, the actors succeed in making them likeable all the same.
Their comedic timing is remarkable; they bring to life the intricacies of the script by using the language to its greatest effect, at times poetic and at others, brazen. Yvan’s enraged monologue is a highlight of the performance. Ranting without pause for many minutes and sustaining an extraordinary level of energy, Tompkinson’s speech rightfully gains the audience’s passionate applause.
The interactions do become quite circular after some time, however. The three men bicker, arguing the same points round and round, the scenes rising and falling in intensity. This pendulum of emotions is handled well but the repetitive quarrelling does become irksome at times, and I did at wish that they would just resolve their petty differences. At times, the play resembled a live sit-com, creating drama for drama’s sake. Nevertheless, it is incredibly impressive that the cast and director have maintained a full 90 minutes of ruckus surrounding a blank white canvas and have done so with humour and sophisticated dialogue that, for the most part, does not tire.
Intriguingly, Reza was initially appalled by the laughter amongst British audiences. Her intentions were to produce a tragedy in which the writing was to be reflected upon sincerely, yet the auditorium was always filled with laughter. We could not help ourselves from finding joy in the irritability of these three clashing characters commanding the stage of the King’s theatre. Whether you view Art as a comedy, tragedy, satire or even melodrama, the quality of the acting and fascinating work in translation are sure to blow you away.
PHOTOS: Matt Crockett