Monday, March 12, 2018

Art - a deconstruction of the art of needling and male histrionics (Grand Opera House until 17 March)

Three old friends, one of whom is wealthy enough to have bought a £200k piece of modern art, disagree over the 5 foot by 4 foot all-white painting and in the process call into question the nature of their friendship.

Art, a ninety minute no interval play, weaves together monologues addressed straight at the audience with one on one conversations between the characters before bringing all three men into the same room for the explosive finish. Alliances are built up and fall in a matter of minutes as each bond in the triangle is tested.

Nigel Havers (etched in my mind as Tom Latimer from 1980s TV show Don't Wait Up) is Serge, a rich doctor who is horrified when one of his best friends Marc takes an instant dislike to his new artwork. Denis Lawson (New Tricks) plays Marc as an uber-honest, straight-talking critic of modernism. While Serge owns the painting, it's Marc who owns the show, with most of the relationship woes revolving around his manner and sentiment. Both Havers and Lawson bring an enormous polish to their performances.

Stephen Tompkinson (Damien Day in Drop The Dead Donkey) plays the youngest of the three, Yvan, a man who is on the verge of getting married and has recently begun to work for his in-law's stationery business. Tomkinson brings a hilarious rant about wedding invitations into the middle of the art criticism, rewarded by audience applause, as his character struggles to see how the like or dislike of a mostly white painting could be more important that his pending nuptials. He also brings a modicum of conciliation into the fraught friendship, and is perhaps the person on stage in whom the audience can most see themselves.

The production has the feel of a play whose dialogue speeds up with every performance, while the pauses elongate and the audience's laughter lingers longer each evening. (It plays as a tragedy, rather than a comedy, to French audiences!) No one stumbles over their lines. Faces turn red and blood pressure seems to genuinely rise as the tension builds.

Yasmina Reza is queen of the needle. As a playwright she puts words and pauses into the mouths of characters who can turn the emotion of a room 90 or 180 degrees in an instant. That was demonstrated to me three years ago when Prime Cut produced The God of Carnage at The MAC. Twelve years older, Art manages to pull off that same combative style with a cast of just three under the direction of Ellie Jones. Translator Christopher Hampton (responsible for English language versions of both Art and The God of Carnage) recolours the original French text into English, shocking the audience each time a new swear word is added into the colourful vocabulary being spat across the living room.

When the curtain went up I realised that the set was familiar: I probably caught Art in London around fifteen years ago. Mark Thompson's tall white walls with gigantic cornicing and elegant cream furniture are very Gallic and have been preserved from the original London run. Hugh Vanstone's lighting is remarkably sophisticated, not only denoting each of the three homes with differing angles of sunshine, but also subtly altering during each scene to emphasise the mood.

The crazy artwork isn't the only white elephant in the room. Is a revival of a play about three well-to-do white men (one in his 50s, one in 60, and one who has turned 70) justified in 2018 when there are so few roles for women? There's no doubt that it's entertaining and shows off the talents of three seasoned actors who bring Reza's script to life. The insecurities and vulnerabilities apparent in platonic male friendships are less often put under the microscope than couple's or women's relationships. In the end, I suspect that the quality of the writing merits Art's continuing success. This particular rosy-cheeked baby shouldn't be thrown out with the bathwater … but I do wonder what an all-female cast could do with the script, and hope that if the UK and Ireland tour continues beyond June that a little more diversity is brought into the otherwise excellent cast.

Art is a reflection of appreciation, dependency, fellowship, loyalty and the dangerous game of trying to lie in order to protect a friendship. The play continues in the Grand Opera House until 17 March, before transferring to Dublin and then touring the UK.

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

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