I have to admit, when I booked ‘Art’ a few months back, I did so not on the strength of the play (about which I knew nothing), but rather on the merits of the Old Vic itself. Under Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, this theatre dazzled with a superb 2016 season, including a devastatingly good ‘The Caretaker’ and a momentous ‘King Lear’. It was, then, with a degree of excitement that I escaped from a distinctly chilly London afternoon and stepped into the warmth of the Old Vic.
The play revolves around the fraught friendship between three middle-aged men: the urbane, raffish Serge; Marc, Serge’s sardonic erstwhile mentor; and Yvan, a nervy middle-man who, in the words of Serge, is ‘incapable of defending himself’. Serge astonishes and horrifies Marc by spending 100,000 euros on a white canvas (or ‘a piece of white shit’, as Marc calls it), which is brought out at regular intervals for inspection by the characters, and by the audience. Poor Yvan, under pressure from his demanding fiancée and stuck in a mundane job, finds himself dragged into Serge and Marc’s opposing views on the canvas, which culminates in a vicious argument in which truths are revealed with tragic cruelty and the men’s friendship is changed, perhaps beyond repair.
“I thought I had written a tragedy” – Yasmina Reza, 1998
All three actors shine in their clearly defined roles. Rufus Sewell is particularly fine as Serge, with superb comic timing and the ability to turn audience laughter to an agonising wince with a particularly barbed comment. His chiseled good looks (sorry, had to mention how ridiculously handsome he is at some point) can only increase his allure, and prove helpful in establishing why Marc might be drawn to the younger man. Paul Ritter is perhaps the least immediately sympathetic of the three (though the audience is probably likely to align with his brutal dismissal of the canvas), but Ritter captures the deeper emotional complexity of Marc as the tension rises, and the wounded pride of a man who depends on being needed by younger, more glamorous friends. Tim Key has to work a little harder with Yvan, but earns a richly-deserved round of applause for a spectacular rant about the ludicrous minutiae of wedding etiquette, during which he scarcely draws breath.
One of the main concerns that critics and reviewers seem to have expressed is how well this play would fare in 2017; after all, our society is a little more accepting of the more challenging (or downright silly) aspects of modern art, and more willing to attribute meaning to plain canvases. I would agree that the play doesn’t have that particular edge, in a society where Hirst and Emin no longer seem provocative. For me, though, the debate about how to respond to the white canvas became one about our compulsions to express our opinions forcefully, no matter whom might be hurt or mildly annoyed by our thoughts. In an age where the President-Elect can fire out tweets that reveal his thin-skinned fear of criticism, and where Twitter disputes over a mildly different point of view can rapidly flare up into rape threats, the way in which the friendship between the men unravels felt particularly apt. While the men’s articulate cruelty is entertaining and cutting in equal measure, Sarah Kent for The Arts Desk aptly notes that men are rarely “this open and perspicacious”, but the savage nature of their verbal attacks on each other reminded me strongly of ‘The Caretaker’ from 2016, another play about three men using words to pick apart each others’ dreams and carefully constructed egos.
Photo from the Old Vic website
The only moments that grated were the fault of the play, rather than the production. I wasn’t a fan of the use of the spotlight to allow each character to reveal information that could have come to light more gradually and naturally through dialogue. These moments felt especially jarring when compared to the play’s climax, which flows with brutal naturalism from cruel barb to deadly silence; however, the final scene, in which each character speaks their private reaction to the ‘trial period’ of their friendship before sitting under a spot of bright colour, was more effective.
I would give this production four stars. I laughed a lot more than I expected to, and hugely enjoyed first the discussions about responding to art and later the spectacular unravelling of the men’s relationship.
‘Art’ runs at the Old Vic until 18th February.