Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse


Representing real historic characters on stage can be a difficult thing and while accuracy is neither here nor there, there is often a need at least to stay true to the spirit and significance of the events and people portrayed. And many of the plays we associate with history’s “heroes” were themselves written hundreds of years after the acts they depict, giving us layer upon layer of interpretation to unravel, often revealing more about the time in which the play was written than the period in which it is set.

From Shakespeare’s Henry V or Richard II to Schiller’s Mary Stuart, recently revived at The Almeida, our fascination with ‘great’ men and women of history remains. There’s something about the nature of heroism, about being an extraordinary person in ordinary or difficult times that appeals to us. And the latest production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, starring Gemma Arterton currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse, emphasises our heroine’s ‘otherness’ in a world of corporate men, but her separation from the pack first marks her out for success before ultimately becoming her undoing.

And in a way this is also where the production falls down, with Arterton shouldering the burden of a concept that doesn’t really work. Set in both the past and the present, the warring factions of France are transformed into a series of shareholder boardrooms worrying about the price of eggs while a war against the English rages around them. Into this strange environment comes peasant girl Joan, dressed throughout in medieval garb, claiming to be led by the voices of the saints who speak to her and assure her of victory if she leads the French army. But with victory comes suspicion and doubt as Joan’s voices lead to accusations of heresy.

Like many of Shakespeare’s war plays, much of the action in Shaw’s Saint Joan happens off-stage so we never really see the battles and dramas that are discussed. In its place are a series of rather knotty debates about strategy, politics and religion that frame the story and propel the plot. To sustain an audience’s attention for up to four hours (thankfully two hours 45 minutes in this case) is quite a challenge for a director and whatever set-up they choose has to clarify these complex discussions while making the off-stage action seem likely and dynamic.

Here the Donmar’s production somewhat fails to create a scenario that gives full reign to the ambiguities of Shaw’s play. In the first half we move between various board members sat around a glass table worrying what to do about the war with the English as video screens show the rise and fall of the stock market behind them, occasionally interspersed with newsreaders narrating the overarching story. And while on paper this should create interesting modern resonances for us, unfortunately, this idea just lacks dynamism on stage.

Because it is such a wordy play a lot rests on the urgency and danger that these conversations create, and whether Joan is a saviour or madwoman should be a question mark throughout the play – and this is how Arterton plays it. But the banker-set not only comes pre-loaded with overtones that immediately set the audience against them, but its static presentation drains the action of its drama. Looking around the auditorium a couple of sleeping audience members and a few empty seats at the start of part two are a sure sign that something here isn’t working well enough.

But if you stay past the interval as the stockholders give way to the clerics, all that changes and suddenly the play gathers considerable forward momentum as the question of Joan’s heresy is debated with a fervour and urgency missing in other areas of the production. The collection of priests, led by visiting inquisitor Rory Keenan and Elliott Levey’s Cauchon add considerable gravitas throughout the debates that neatly balance the desire for some to destroy Joan as a figurehead and those on the council with more humane intentions to save her soul.

With a life on the line this second part of the production takes on the urgency and tension the play requires and Shaw’s text feels modern and relevant, a wry comment on our tendency to build-up and then destroy icons. As that icon Arterton’s Joan is a nicely complex but actually consistent figure, and interestingly how we view her shifts with the context of the play as it does for the characters.

In the first part she is a crusader, entirely devoted and inspirational in her determination to put the sulky Dauphin on the throne and rid France of the English. With Joan praying fervently as the audience takes their seats, it’s clear in Arterton’s performance that she truly believes the voices in her head are those of the saints and that certainty sweeps the experienced military leaders along, her divine calm convincing them as it does the audience that she knows the way.

That shifts however in the second half as the clerics question Joan, and suddenly under their interrogation her certainty seems delusional. A touch of arrogance also creeps into the performance as Joan begins to believe in her own reputation and insist that her way was correct which gets her into a lot of trouble, opening up debates about her direct communion with God which questions the hold of the Catholic Church. This new angle that the audience gets on Joan’s approach is one of the most interesting aspects of the play, and a key success of this production because Arterton’s performance is unswerving in depicting Joan’s drive and determination, so it is the viewer’s perspective that is altered, a neat trick. Arterton’s choice of theatre roles is certainly putting some distance between her current work and the rom-com / Bond girl parts she was once offered.

Other than the concept itself there are a couple of minor niggles that detract somewhat from the performances. Revolving sets are becoming lazy shorthand for substituting tension and drama that’s not apparent in the production, but when they work well they can be superb – as in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire. But here in the tiny Donmar space, where you can see the actors perfectly well from anywhere in the house, it’s not only unnecessary but distracting, especially when it judders round uncomfortably on its track.

Similarly frustrating are the choice of accents relying on some lazy stereotyping; Joan speaks in a West Country farmer accent so the audience clearly understands she is a peasant girl, while the English warmongers have the standard aristocratic voice that has walked off the set of Downton Abbey. It’s frustrating that these clichés are too often the fall-back, along with the comedy northerner, because it undermines the work of the actor in trying to convey a rounded character. Maybe in 2017 we should think about moving on from these rather cheap categorisations.

The Donmar’s production of Saint Joan is a mixed bag but Arterton’s performance certainly keeps the show on the road, and if you can make it past the interval your patience will be rewarded with a tense and gripping second half.  Its overall concept may be a little thin but it certainly conveys what an interesting character Joan was, the complex reactions she provokes and why we continue to be fascinated by her claim to have heard the voice of God.

Saint Joan is at the Donmar Warehouse until the 18 February with a live cinema screening on 16 February. Tickets start at £7.50 for standing spots and the production is part of the Barclays Front Row scheme offering £10 tickets every Monday at 10am.

Film Review: Manchester by the Sea


Grief is a difficult subject to tackle in films, and it can often become histrionic or mawkish. Yet it’s something that everyone experiences at some point, usually multiple times, and the ways in which people respond to the loss of a loved one is incredibly varied. Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival considers the impact of a sudden death and how difficult it is for individuals to hide from their past.

Lee Chandler works as a handyman / caretaker in a residential block in the city. He fixes showers and replaces light bulbs, makes small talk with residents but lives a life of bleak isolation, an existence he seems to accept uncomplainingly. Out of the blue Lee’s brother, Joe, dies and Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester – a cheerlessly bleak seaside town – to take care of Joe’s teenage son Patrick and settle his brother’s affairs. While here, he encounters his ex-wife Randi and the reason why Lee left Manchester begin to emerge.

Lonergan’s story is an unusually compassionate one, and offers a variety of more restrained perspectives on grief than often portrayed on screen. Rather than expansive emotional breakdown, we see a group of family and friends in small town America struggling to come to terms with a tragedy but having to maintain a front for each other, supressing their emotions in order to transact the various funereal and administrative procedures that necessarily accompany death. And while that may all sound rather bland, Lonergan adds depth with the slowly unfolding story of Lee’s life and an even earlier tragedy that set him on his current path.

Lonergan approaches the story in three distinct sections; we see Lee’s life in Boston at the beginning, the man he has become and the colourless existence he accepts; we also see his return to Manchester in the present day and the reluctant but growing not-quite-but-almost fatherly relationship Lee develops with Patrick after Joe appoints him guardian; and finally all of this is interspersed with memories of Lee’s earlier life in Manchester as a happy married man with two children. Much of the tension and emotional resonance comes from knowing that somehow, somewhere Lee’s life changed irrevocably, losing everything he had, becoming a shadow of the man he was both emotionally and in terms of his social interaction.

Much of the success of the film lays in Casey Affleck’s taut and matter-of-fact performance that effectively shows Lee as a man who has withdrawn from life, defeated by bad luck and bad judgement. But actually this is a film about relationships and it starts by reflecting on the happy, supportive interaction between two siblings as we see Lee and Joe fishing with Patrick on the surrounding sea, drinking together in a group of friends at Lee’s house and eventually Joe helping Lee when he moves to the city. This warm brotherly affection is a brutal contrast with Lee’s withdrawn and isolated state at the start of the film.

Golden Globe winner Affleck is particularly effective at displaying the contained grief that follows, no histrionics or lengthy shots of him gazing longingly into the middle distance, but instead we see a man just quietly and conscientiously accepting the latest in a long-line of blows life has aimed at him. There are practical matters to attend to – arranging the funeral, buying food for his nephew, meeting with lawyers – which Lee just gets on with. There’s no time for breakdowns or recriminations, and while he is certain he is in no state to support his nephew long term (despite his brother’s will), he just gets on with the domestic tasks ahead of him. Affleck’s performance is already attracting attention and is sure to appear on the Oscar list later in the year.

Likewise Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi seen briefly in the modern and flashback sections of the film. She’s not on screen for very long but her short appearances are significant and powerfully portrayed. Williams has long been a favourite with awards panels, and here she, like Affleck, has a dual role to play as the once largely contented mother, frustrated by her husband’s thoughtlessness when he has boozy nights with his friends, but in a stable happy home.  Again in the modern sections we see the results of a tragedy that separated, as Williams brings an affection for her former husband marred by a slightly embarrassment at the obvious presence of her new life. It’s a pivotal role, demonstrating how people who were once so close have become permanently divided, and set on different paths, without any lasting ill-feeling between them.

Lee’s relationship with his nephew is also central to the film, and from the flashbacks we see that they’ve long had a close connection. After a lengthy absence, returning home at the start, the now teenage Patrick is a little more awkward than the sweet child Lee used to fish with, and although they make some progress in re-establishing a closer bond it’s a continual trial for both of them which forms much of the drama in the central section of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s initially quite hard to grasp that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t as affected by the death of his father as you would expect and wants to spend time with his girlfriend, see his friends and avoid awkward conversations – fairly typical teenage behaviour – but Patrick’s detachment is more surprising and less explicable than Lee’s seeing as the boy had a seemingly good relationship with his dad, who cared for him when his mum walked out. Additional nuance is added by a burgeoning relationship with his now reformed alcoholic mother who tries to reach out and integrate her son into her new family which leads to some incredibly awkward dinners that feel real and familiar.

As well as the controlled performances from the leads, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is suitably bleak, capturing beautiful but almost colourless images of the cold Manchester seascape, which reflect the emotional desolation of the film. Lonergan takes his time with the plot, allowing events to unfold slowly and building a sense of the community. Despite its critical praise and award-hopes, it will be a divisive movie for some, largely because grief is so often portrayed hysterically that it may be difficult for audiences to warm to Lee’s restraint and root for him when he deliberately shuts out the world, and our sympathies.  And while we uncover Lee’s secret this is not a film that sets any of its characters on new paths, leaving them almost entirely where we met them – again something viewers will either love or find impossibly slow. Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the weeks ahead and with Oscar and Bafta nominations round the corner, Lonergan’s subtle story is sure to feature.

Manchester by the Sea was premiered at the London Film Festival in October and opens in UK cinemas on 13th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Mary Stuart – Almeida


Monarchy and death are integral to one another. The nature of hereditary governance means that a new King or Queen usually only succeeds to the role they’ve prepared their whole lives for on the death of a parent. A monarch’s reign begins with grief and ends in death, but rarely have living monarchs had the destiny of a foreign displaced ruler in their hands. Schiller’s Mary Stuart details one such occasion, and probably history’s most famous example – when deposed Scottish Queen Mary sought refuge in England but was kept prisoner for 19 years by her royal cousin Elizabeth I.

Schiller’s play, now over 200 years old, has only limited claims to authenticity and his preference for telling Mary’s side of the story is clear, yet there is plenty of nuance to keep dramatists happy. Previous lauded productions have emphasised the difference between the two Queens, while in the Almeida’s new version, it is their similarities and entwined destinies that are played up. The historical record partially supports both interpretations, although more recent scholarship has tended to celebrate Elizabeth’s ability to put duty before her personal needs.

The conceit of Robert Icke’s new version is that the lead roles are played by both Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, decided in ceremony at the start of each performance by the toss of a coin. Destiny decides who is who each day, and we are asked to accept that Elizabeth and Mary could so easily have known each other’s fate. And within that context of the play and in history that is true… to a point.

At the start, both Queens process to the stage from the rear stalls while John Light as the Earl of Leicester – the man, in Schiller’s partially fabricated account, who is caught between them – spins a coin, and as soon as it falls everything swing into action. In the version I saw, Williams played Mary and it is with her that we spend much of the early part of the play. Ever a magnet for plots and schemes, the narrative hinges on the extent to which Mary knew or even instigated any of them, and whether Elizabeth as a fellow monarch had any right to take her life for it, even when such machinations threatened her own.

It is clear enough in Schiller’s writing, and consequently in Icke’s staging, that Elizabeth is a monster and Mary largely a poor victim of her merciless royal cousin. While production values and performance are high, it is difficult not to be a little disappointed that there wasn’t more ambiguity in the relationship between these two women, which is one of the main reasons they continue to fascinate us. Should Elizabeth be condemned for ending Mary’s life when there was considerable circumstantial proof that Mary had repeatedly tried to deprive Elizabeth of hers?

There are throw-away comments about the nature of the two Queens, with Mary giving herself over repeatedly to her femininity and multiple lovers which leads to acts of betrayal, while Elizabeth flirted and cajoled but ultimately jettisoned an ordinary personal life to maintain stability and loyalty in a kingdom riven by religious wars and factions for more than 20 years prior to her accession.  And there is much that could be made of these nuances in a production that seems to favour Mary’s cause.

Part of that is down to Lia Williams’s dominating performance as the calculating and martyred Mary. The audience never quite knows if she is playing them – is she genuinely an innocent in these plots, is she the centre of a very tangled web, or perhaps she has just convinced herself that she’s not responsible? Clearly Schiller and  Icke tilt the action in her favour but Williams grasps the opportunity the playwright offers to display a range of interesting emotions from regret for her lasciviousness and involvement in the murder and downfall of her former husbands, to outrage at the prolonged confinement as a political refugee and barely concealed glee at the thought of taking her cousin’s place, as well as utilisation of her fervent Catholic faith in “proving” herself innocent of the plots against Elizabeth.

Yet, the rest of the production, thought simply staged, doesn’t quite match up to these ambiguities. It takes a while for Elizabeth and her court to appear and there seems considerably less emphasis on understanding her motivation in the context of her reign. Stripped of all circumstance, Elizabeth becomes someone who grants asylum to her unnamed heir, imprisons her for nearly two decades and is led by ‘evil counsellors’ to grant her rival’s execution largely out of jealousy.

But if you put the circumstances back in, then Elizabeth’s position becomes more sympathetic and even understandable – something this production doesn’t fully acknowledge. By the time of this play, 1587, Elizabeth had been Queen for 30 years, making her and Mary in their 50s (and thus much older than Schiller suggests). During that time she had balanced the extreme religious divisions that saw England become first virtually puritan and then fanatically Catholic in the 10 years of her siblings’ reigns, as well as constant questions about her legitimacy, marriageability and skill in managing a dissenting aristocracy, divisions Elizabeth had carefully navigated for three decades. The arrival of Mary Queen of Scots on English soil, a deposed Catholic from a rival power linked to the murder of her own husband and years of poor decision-making, was a huge and complicated problem for the English monarch that could only inflame various divisions in her own realm. Protect her or remove her, the consequences were significant; Elizabeth was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.

These are aspect Schiller overlooks and Icke’s production barely references. Juliet Stevenson gives us some of Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, her famous prevarication, anger and recrimination but not much of her heart. In part one, she paces and frowns, in part two she becomes hysterical, it’s undoubtedly what Schiller wants but it’s not all there is to the character. For a story that’s almost entirely about power-play this is curiously wordy and slow at times. In over three hours reams of dialogue and an occasional confusion of characters slacken what should be a dangerous pace, and where Elizabeth could be seen to be rushed into a decision by urgency, here that is a more leisurely feel.

The surrounding cast are fine with Vincent Franklin as Burleigh giving sage advice but with a nod to the longstanding rivalry with John Light’s Leicester – a character who is actually much maligned by Schiller in this play. For a very long time the Earl of Leicester’s reputation was diabolical, a man thought to have murdered his own wife to try and marry his Queen and was blamed for many of the ills of Elizabethan England. This was very much the man Schiller presented in 1800, whereas in recent times historians have restored Leicester’s reputation and done much to prove the allegations against him were largely groundless.

Nonetheless he is a driving force in this play as the man between the two Queens and John Light gives a compelling and highly engaging performance that adds drama to any scene in which he appears. In truth Leicester was absent from the country for most of the years around Mary’s execution, serving in the Netherlands and unlikely to have had as decisive a hand in events as Schiller depicts. Rather than playing both women, Leicester had tired of Elizabeth’s decades of dithering and married Lettice Knollys in 1578 so the fervent sexual connection suggested here between Elizabeth and Leicester would have long gone off the boil. Likewise the character of Mortimer who seeds and enacts the final plot to remove Elizabeth and replace her with Mary is entirely the author’s creation.

With a fair amount of critical approval for this role-swapping production and expectations consequently high, it was difficult not to be a little underwhelmed in the end by the too clear-cut approach to heroes and villains that the production takes. Although history and drama needn’t accord, and central performances aside, the production felt like a missed opportunity to present a more complex picture of Mary’s execution.

It may seem strange to have included so much comparison with history in a theatre review, but when the central premise of this production is that Mary and Elizabeth could so easily have had the other’s fate – a conclusion drawn not entirely from the text alone – I was not convinced that was true. Besides their royal status and lineage, the production doesn’t fully makes the case for their interchangeability; Mary was full of human weakness, now remembered more for the manner of her death than even the scandals that took her there, while Elizabeth’s dealings with Mary were one aspect of a 45 year reign that marked her as one of England’s most successful monarchs. The Almeida’s version of Schiller’s play is decent enough, but the truth is so much more interesting.

Mary Stuart is at the Almeida until 21 January. Tickets are mostly sold out but extra tickets are released often from £10.

Review of the Year and What to See in 2017

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Very few of us will be sorry to see the back of 2016, politically and socially it’s been a tough year all round. But it hasn’t been all bad with London’s cultural output thriving in uncertain times and at the start of 2016 there was much to anticipate. While 2015 theatre was all about five big male performance, 2016 was a time for some of our leading female actors to take to the stage with powerful productions of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre with Helen McCrory on devastating form as Rattigan’s desperate heroine, while The Young Vic’s Yerma cemented Billie Piper’s growing status as a very fine stage performer, and closing the year, The National’s innovative Hedda Gabler with a brutally savage turn from Ruth Wilson as the suffocated society wife.

Some other good but not perfect productions also heralded some noteworthy for roles for Gemma Chang in Jamie Lloyd’s exciting take on Pinter’s The Homecoming, for Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart (review to follow next week), Sharon D Clarke in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Amber Riley in Dreamgirls. Not to be outdone notable male performances including Ralph Fiennes in The Master Builder which was one of his finest ever stage roles, shamefully overlooked by the Olivier committee, as well as the lead in a notable Richard III at the Almeida. Later in the year Kenneth Branagh defied comparisons to deliver a moving and powerful interpretation of The Entertainer while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith found new depth in The Dresser, not forgetting Kit Harrington cavorting about in his pants and making a decent job of the leading role in Jamie Lloyd’s controversial but resonant Faustus. But my favourite was Mark Strong’s incredible performance in The Red Barn which earned a first professional five-star review from me.

For theatre 2017 is already promising a host of hotly anticipated male roles and having opened 2016 with another chance to see his magnificent Richard II at the Barbican, David Tennant returns to the Wyndhams stage in March for Patrick Marber’s contemporary adaptation of Don Juan in Soho which promises a great deal. Also in March Daniel Radcliffe returns to London in an Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead while in April star-director Ivo van Hove’s version of Obsession opens at the Barbican with film-star Jude Law. The National also revives its production of Angels in America with Russell Tovey which will be one of the big openers in 2017.  But the show to watch next year is a hotly anticipated version of Hamlet at the Almeida which opens in late February staring Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Jessica Brown Findlay and rising star Luke Thompson. Comparisons with Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet are inevitable but the Almeida is a much smaller space and Robert Icke’s vision may yet surprise us.

Art and exhibitions have noted a major change in presentation and style since the 2015 Alexander McQueen show which really altered the way items are presented. Utilising the success of this the V&A called on their design experience to present a lively examination of 60s popular and political culture in Records and Rebels which you can still see a little while longer. In a similar vein Vogue celebrated its 100th birthday with an excellent exhibition of its fashion photography which emphasised its role in reflecting the changing world around the magazine, while the Barbicans show about The Vulgar collected some excellent exhibits but misused them in over-intellectualised structure. And Somerset House celebrated fan-art inspired by the weird and wonderful world of Kubrick films.

From July the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme offered two of London’s most successful shows focused on very different aspects of conflict. The Science Museum’s Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care was an eye-opening and well researched examination of a little known aspect of the First Wold War, while the Imperial War Museum comes very close to show of the year with its excellent Real to Reel exhibition on war movies. That accolade actually goes to the Royal Academy for its Painting the Modern Garden show which collated so many beautiful paintings that wandering from crowded room to crowded room was never less than a joy.

Looking ahead and the headline show for 2017 is the Tate’s David Hockney retrospective from February which is set to unite his UK and US work for the first time. After a stunning 2012 show at the Royal Academy, a proper examination of Hockney’s work is long overdue and this is sure to be a big hit for Tate Britain after their disappointing Paul Nash and Empire shows. This will be followed by a show on the impressionists in London from November.

Meanwhile other American art comes into focus with big shows on post-1930s art at the Royal Academy from February and Pop Art and the American Dream at the British Museum from March. In February Kensington Palace opens a guaranteed money-spinning crowd-pleaser with a showcase of Princess Diana’s dresses set to run for two years, while at the tail end of next year the Queen’s Gallery launches its examination of Charles II’s art.

London’s 2016 Film Festival was once again lived up to anticipation and seems to be going from strength to strength. As well as the Amy Adams double bill of linguistic sci-fi adventure Arrival and Tom Ford’s stylishly dark morality tale Nocturnal Animals which have already opened in the UK as well as Andrea Arnold’s superb American Honey, the Film Festival also showcased a number of significant films due to open here in the early part of 2017. Best among and them already earning countless award nominations is Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which is in cinemas from 13 January and is an exceptional clash of the classic Hollywood musical and modern grittier experiences of trying to make it in LA. It is beautifully realised and its stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, have never been better.

Out in the same week is Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (review to follow shortly), a sensitive portrayal of grief and guilt with its stars Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams certain to dominate the acting honours in February. Although full release dates are not yet announced theatre director Benedict Andrews’s adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird, now retitled Una and starring Rooney Mara deals with the difficult issue of abuse and its consequences. Although the film’s approach does undermine its purpose to a degree it will create talking points on release, and a review will follow when that date is announced. Finally Adam Smith’s first film Trespass Against Us, starring Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender is scheduled for 3 March, with both playing members of a Gloucestershire traveller community, replete with local accents, who account for much of the local crime rate. Premiering at the Film Festival, it offers some impressive low-budget car chases and great black comedy moments, as well as fine performances from its top-notch cast.

So as we swiftly kick 2016 away it may not have been a great year but it has offered a number of cultural highs. With plenty of potentially excellent theatre, exhibitions and films in the works, there’s much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Reviews are posted every Monday at 12.30pm.Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

Art – Old Vic


Modern art can still be incredibly controversial and more often than not the annual Turner prize nominees raise more than a few eyebrows. In some ways little has changed since Yasmin Reza’s play Art was first premiered in the West End over 20 years ago with debates still raging between those who prefer classical to contemporary art. Can a giant sculpture of a bottom be art; what about a brick, an unmade bed or, in the case of Serge in this play, a white painting crossed with thin white lines? And would you really be prepared to lose friends over your taste in art?

The Old Vic’s revival of Art should feel very timely then – a discussion that never goes out of fashion – but there’s something about this 90 minute play, though interesting and well performed, that never seems to get beyond its own surface engagement with the issues it tries to debate. There are two key themes that it considers; the questions about art and taste that divide the three friends in this story, and a second strand on the nature of (particularly) male friendships and whether longevity alone is a good enough reason for sustaining them.

At the start of the play, Serge has purchased a large entirely white canvas for a considerable sum which he shows to his friend Marc, an intellectual with a preference for the Dutch Masters who baulks at the stupidity of Serge’s decision. With their friendship now under strain, they both appeal to mutual friend Yvan, a people pleaser in the midst of stressful wedding plans, who is caught between them. Over the course of several meetings, the discussions about the painting reveal deep rifts in their friendship which may end their association for good.

A lot of people really love this play and during its extended eight year run in the early 2000s it attracted a large number of comedians in its frequently rotating cast, including The League of Gentlemen, Jack Dee and Frank Skinner, as well as established actors. Mixing the two, as the Old Vic does here, actually accentuates the slightly shallow story while not quite resolving the serious introspection vs slapstick tone, which draws quite a distinct line between the times experienced thespians Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell are on stage alone, and the scenes that utilise Tim Key’s comic talents.

And while it skirts a number of intellectual questions it doesn’t really delve beneath the surface of its characters and their traits in any meaningful way. Characterisation on the page is rather thin; who these people are, the nature of their relationship to each other and any sense that they genuinely exist outside the rooms of this play, despite repeated references to partners, seems brittle and unlikely. It feels in many ways like it starts a conversation that it doesn’t finish which can be a bit frustrating to watch and this production focuses on getting the laugh – which it frequently does – rather than on anything more meaningful.

Yet, in this case, as in many previous versions, it is the strength of the performances that carries you along. Rufus Sewell rarely disappoints, here adding much needed gravitas to the tricky role of Serge – a man who has purchased a controversial painting at great expense and initially at least is surprised by his friends’ lack of acceptance. Sewell is very good at keeping the audience mostly on his side, and while Serge is an arrogant bachelor living a pretty comfortable existence, able to make elaborate purchases on a whim, Sewell makes him seem reasonable, calm and appealing – although this will depend on your views on modern art I suppose.

Likewise Paul Ritter’s Marc has an entrenched academic flavour, a man who has spent years committed to his way of thinking and enraged by the idiocy of his friend. Marc expresses his rage more visibly that Serge, and while occasionally petty, feels genuinely affected by the cracks in their friendship which reveal he is not the person he thought he was. Much of Marc’s self-worth is invested in the role of “intellectual” he feels he has played amongst his friends, particularly with Serge, and seeing him make a rash choice so far from a purchase Marc would have made is demoralising and eye-opening for him.  Again this is hinted at in the text but Ritter gives a much fuller life to it than the character suggests.

Tim Key, as the only professional comedian in the group, takes a slightly different approach, naturally playing up the humour of the luckless middle-man whose chaotic personal life takes precedence over his friend’s minor wrangles about a painting. Yvan is easily swayed however and initially is talked into his opinion, agreeing with whoever he is with and it is only when the three come together for the only time in the play that his people-pleasing is put under pressure. Given his background, Key’s approach is more sitcom-like so the balance with the straighter approach of the other two actors isn’t always quite right and although he understandably has less stagecraft – with one previous play to his credit –  there are a lot of fans in the audience who enjoy every minute.

Looking back on previous versions of this play some commenters have noted that what you get out of Art will depend considerably on the cast and while that’s probably true of most theatre, that feels particularly relevant here. The Old Vic’s version is pitched somewhere between serious drama and sitcom which somewhat blunts any deeper points the production is trying to make. More than ever it really felt like a product of its time – that late 90s period of Damien Hirst conceptual art, shamelessly wealthy individuals and conspicuous consumption – that just doesn’t seem real in quite the same way anymore. London has changed so much since this play was first premiered with international investment being more prominent, so while art is still being brought and sold the shamefacedness of it is less obvious. Perhaps the slight feeling of disassociation this production creates comes from the fact the play just doesn’t resonate in our more austere and ecological times?

Matthew Warchus – who directed the original London run – keeps things moving swiftly in the mere 90 minute uninterrupted runtime and Christopher Hampton’s translation has lots of funny moment, while Mark Thompson’s set flexibly creates two, rather fancy, apartments with only a lighting change and a swivelling wall revealing that we’re in Marc’s home rather than Serge’s although it’s not clear that we’re in Paris particularly. Like art itself your response to this play may be very different to mine – there are people who love it and tomorrow’s press night will be particularly interesting. While it could say much more about the approach to modern art and the competitive nature of male friendships, the chance to see Ritter and particularly the ever-excellent Sewell keeps you watching.

Art is at the Old Vic until 18 February and has an age appropriate rating of 12 years+. Tickets start from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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