But, as this Old Vic revival showcases, Yasmina Reza’s Art is ‘plain but at the same time magnetic’ — just like the painting that propels the drama.
This French three-hander caused a sensation on the West End back in 1996, proving far more popular overseas than in Paris. After extended runs in London and New York and a quartet of the world's most prestigious theatre awards — Molière, Evening Standard, Olivier and Tony -- Art has become a monument of 90s theatre. Twenty years later, Matthew Warchus’s production is freshly funny, razor sharp and buoyed by the chemistry and comic timing of its impressive cast.
Rufus Sewell is smooth, self-assured and just smug enough as Serge, a divorced dermatologist turned Modern Art connoisseur, who has just splurged £100,000 on a white painting. As the artwork is moved around his elegant sitting room, the (almost imperceptible) details of the canvas are echoed in strips of light streaming through a Venetian blind.
Marc, played with the requisite tension by Paul Ritter, is horrified at his friend’s extravagance over what is, quite literally, a blank canvas. Peace-maker Yvan is caught between his two friends, acting as mediator until he, too, cracks — in a show-stopping monologue by comedian Tim Key. Ripples of laughter and two attempts at spontaneous audience applause can’t dilute the diatribe. By the breathless end Key's face is the colour of boiled ham and everyone is in stitches.
There’s a directness to the cultural debate that feels faintly Continental, but the fluency of the dialogue soon makes you forget Yasmina Reza’s script has been translated (superbly by Christopher Hampton) from French. The nuances, timings and intonations of the humour feel wholly natural. And the accusation looming large over the whole knotty web of conflict (that each man has in turn lost his sense of humour) has a distinctly British flavour.
The assessment of the contemporary art world and competing threads of value and aesthetics feels as pertinent as ever. Then, inevitably, disagreements over taste and common sense morph and multiply to probe all the cracks and fractures of the friendship.
And it is in these tiny jealousies, broad resentments and niggling prejudices that Reza’s script it as its shrewdest, funniest and most moving.
|What||Art, Old Vic review|
The Old Vic
The Cut, London, SE1 8NB | MAP
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
10 Dec 16 – 18 Feb 17, 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
|Price||£12 - £65|
|Website||Click here to book via Culture Whisper and See Tickets|