As social satires go Yasmina Reza’s sophisticated and witty play Art (translated by Christopher Hampton) must rank amongst the best and it has some real laugh out loud moments. These are not only to do with the wit of the vicious barbs throughout the text but, very much down to the style of the show with its asides to the audience and the comedic and straight acting of its three well known actors. Through the director’s work (Ellie Jones) and the stylish way the text is used, this production wrings out every comedic nuance and leaves the audience in a position of wry observers wondering about the nature of art and over the breaking up of the protagonists friendship.
Nigel Havers has played the snobbish Serge before in the West End and his pedigree shows. The audience lap up the pretentiousness and charm of his character and the wonderful way he espies and shows off his new treasure – a large plain white canvas by a fashionable artist. He delights in telling us, and his friend Marc (Denis Lawson), that he has happily paid 200,000 euros for the work. Marc tells him the canvas is a piece of shit. Arguments between the two men ensue and tempers get frayed. Both characters are very opinionated and temperamental and each believes wholesale that they are in the right.
Art and philosophical hypocrisy rules the stage and a third party called Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) is brought into the fray. Easy going Yvan just wants – like Norman in The Dresser – everything to be lovely. He has no strong opinion about the white canvas and what it does or doesn’t ‘say’ to the viewer. He has enough troubles of his own with an impending marriage to Paula that, despite Serge and Marc’s insistence, he dare not cancel even though he may not actually love her. His raw and vulnerable uncertainty is fresh meat to the hungry sharks Serge and Marc. Tompkinson gives one of the longest and funniest (nearly two pages) speeches in Art and gets a huge round of applause for his comic delivery. All three men are actors at the top of their game and it is a joy to see them bitching about each other and all over a painting that is just a white canvas. Or maybe there are elements of grey and flecks of red…
Yasmina Reza cleverly explores the relationship between artistic degrees of taste and capital worth and just because someone else has another artistic opinion, learned or purely objective, whether that should affect the value of human friendship. If one wishes to look deeper into the creative and philosophical arguments factual or literal within the body of the play those are there too but essentially it about the perception of a white canvas and the divisions it causes. Art is very funny, extremely slick, only 90 minutes long and in this humble yet educated reviewers eyes Serge has wasted his 200,000 euros for a simple white canvas that could lose its value overnight … Discuss.
Art runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 5th May 2018.
Reviewer: Phil Lowe.