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