Matthew Warchus first directed Yasmina Reza’s play, Art, in 1996 when it garnered an Olivier Award. I didn’t get to see it then so am thrilled he has decided to reprise it now at The Old Vic.
Art is ostensibly a savagely funny play about - well art, or at least a canvas painted white with hardly noticeable different shades of diagonal white lines. Or, as one of the three friends in the play calls it, “shit”. It is this comment that causes discontent and, ultimately, downright animosity between them. The owner of said painting is Dermatologist, Serge (Rufus Sewell) who has paid 100,000 euros for the privilege of hanging it on his wall. Mark (Paul Ritter) is his long-term close friend and the one who names the painting “shit”, whilst the third member of the trio is Yvan (Tim Key). Ivan is soon to be married and is the peacemaker of the group, the one who constantly “sits on the fence”. Mark, on the other hand, sounds off and scoffs at pretty much everything.
Within a few minutes it becomes obvious that this white painting has become the catalyst for highlighting the basis of the friendship between these three men. Mark can’t begin to understand how his oldest friend who once (or so he thought) looked up to him, could have lost all taste and self respect by purchasing such an abhorrent piece of art work. Ivan’s reward for being the conciliatory member of the trio, is for the other two to viciously turn on him, whilst the rather self satisfied Serge is hurt by the smugness of his Philistine chum, who dares to call his new acquisition, shit.
Reza’s dialogue (brilliantly adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton) crackles, sparkles and often wounds. At one point, poor old Ivan’s frailties are so cruelly exposed by his two friends that there is an audible gasp from the audience. The men make us wince, groan and laugh ‘til it hurts, whilst they encircle one another, boxer-like or gang up two to one.
The three actors are exemplary, as is Matthew Warchus’s direction. The impossibly handsome Rufus Sewell who seems to improve with age – how can that be – makes for a perfect Serge. Cool and sophisticated, he has just the right balance between self-satisfaction, confidence and insecurity and, as I’ve said, is very, very easy on the eye. Paul Ritter is hilarious as the bitter Mark, who can’t reconcile the fact that he is no longer the alpha male in his friendship with Serge (if he ever was, of course). And then we come to Tim Key, who is genuinely moving and rightly deserves the round of applause that follows his mounting hysterical monologue concerning mothers, step-mothers and the wording of a wedding invitation.
Following her Olivier Award for best comedy, Reza jokingly said that she thought she had written a tragedy. In many ways there is a bleakness to this story about the near disintegration of three men’s friendship but, thanks to Warchus directing with a lightness and being unafraid to milk certain pauses to the limit, the humour comes out on top. The scene where three men throw their olive stones into a stainless steel dish is a sublime piece of theatre.
I have certainly put my money where my mouth is, having seen Art twice within a space of ten days. The second viewing was as funny as the first. Thank you Mr. Warchus for reprising this “big small play”; I loved it.