BWW Review: ART, Richmond Theatre
In 1998, French playwright Yasmina Reza was slightly bemused to win an Olivier Award for Best Comedy with her play ART. Her intention was to write a biting satire, tinged with tragedy, but British audiences have consistently failed to see the play as a tragedy, appreciating the play as a hilarious and sharp parody where, although art is the subject of the play, the heart of it is friendship.
Dermatologist Serge has just bought a painting by modern artist Antrios for 200,000. He is derided by his old friend Marc for spending such a huge sum on, what is essentially, a plain white canvas. As the argument escalates, harsh words and even harsher truths are exchanged, as their mutual friend Yvan tries desperately to mediate.
Nigel Havers is perfectly cast as Serge, a pretentious and preening peacock who believes that his decisions to spend ludicrous amounts on such an interesting painting will make him seem a serious connoisseur of modern art and the cream of his friendship circle. Havers shows great poise, which makes his furious outbursts even funnier.
Denis Lawson plays Marc. He is excellent in conveying that Marc believes he is the only one with taste and that everyone should defer to him: Serge has upset the status quo with the purchase and Marc is furious. Lawson radiates indignance at the shift in aesthetic taste that he sees in his friend.
The man in the middle is Yvan, played by Stephen Tompkinson. He conveys genuine feelings of trauma and worry at the thought that his friendship circle could be disintegrating.
In many ways, Tompkinson is the heart of the play, as he tried to reason with both his friends. He has other pressures to contend with, including his upcoming wedding and rather demanding step-in-laws. A particular ranting soliloquy from Tompkinson regarding names on the wedding invitations is delivered almost without taking a breath and is both wonderfully passionate and incredibly funny.
What is less convincing is why these men would have been friends in the first place, but the totally natural relationship between the actors smartly allows the audience to forget this inconvenient truth; their relationships seem authentic and the genuine rapport they have is a pleasure to watch.
This tour uses Matthew Warchus' original direction, continued by Ellie Jones and it still works brilliantly. One scene where the three men begrudgingly share a bowl of olives is a masterclass in passive aggression.
Despite the British tolerance for modern art having grown exponentially since the play debuted, the subject still provokes much thought and debate. Where does the value of art lie? Is it in its value or what it gives aesthetically to the viewer? Crucially, the play also explores how we are judged for our own judgement.
Yasmina Reza's writing remains as sharp and acutely funny as ever and is performed here by three highly accomplished actors. Having seen them in interviews, the friendship that the trio have off stage is clearly a huge benefit to the play and gives a feeling of authenticity throughout the show. Its enduring appeal shows is a crowd-pleaser but, crucially, never dumbs down.
Photo Credit: Matt Crockett