Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Art

This clever revival remains an artful conceit, but is no longer the masterpiece it once was

Written by Georgina Brown
How about a bit of nostalgia and a touch of disappointment to start off the New Year?

Not one but two of my favourite theatrical moments spring from 1996 and the premier of Yasmina Reza’s sophisticated, witty Art. The first is when Ken Stott, playing Yvan, a conciliatory, gentle stationery salesman who is about to get married, becomes apoplectic with despair at the wrangles at home about whose names should appear on the Georgina-Brown-colour-176wedding invitations. Stott’s unforgettable tour de force reached comic heights and tragic depths which had me weeping with laughter and in sympathy. In the second, Marc, an engineer and anti-modernist, holds a blue felt-tip pen over a very expensive white painting. Will he, won’t he? So, 20 years on, does a revival by the same team, director Matthew Warchus, who is now running the Old Vic, and designer Mark Thompson, have me falling off my seat and then tensely perching on the edge, all over again?

Little has changed in the set: three chairs, one trad, one neo-classical, one postmodern, in the chic minimalist drawing room in perfect harmony, in sharp contrast with the three men on whom the play centres. Serge (Rufus Sewell), a dermatologist and art collector, has spent €100,000 on a white canvas. Yvan, here played by the comedian Tim Keys, claims to find some resonance in the piece, while Paul Ritter’s Marc is appalled by serge’s extravagance, pretentiousness and, worse, his inability to laugh at himself.

Thus, an abstract work of art provokes an all-out assault from all three on one another’s tastes, partners, choices – and questions the shared values which have bound a long friendship.

It’s a brilliantly artful conceit. Reza has a keen ear for the idiocies, trivia, petty and deeply serious assaults which pepper the conversational shorthand between old friends and Warchus’s production snaps, crackles and pops.

So why was I disappointed? First, because Warchus has recreated the original production without refreshing it for a new generation. Second, because this cast fails to imbue the inner lives of the characters with the richness I remember. Key’s hen-pecked loser Yvan is neither hilarious nor moving. Sewell’s reedy Serge, spookily resembling a young Sacha Distel, is easy on the eye, but dreary on the ear. The more calming homeopathic remedies popped by a nicely intense Ritter, the more sweaty and hysterical he becomes.

Art remains a provocative, entertaining piece, but if you saw it during its original astonishing eight-year run, there’s no need to see it again. Unlike that white painting, which, fascinatingly, becomes more beguiling with each new encounter. 

Until 18 February at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1: 0844- 871 7628, www.oldvictheatre.com 


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