Review of Art at The Old Vic
Yasmina Reza's 1994 comedy was the darling hit play of the 90s notching up long runs in the West End, Broadway as well as a considerable life on UK tour. Artistic director of the Old Vic Michael Warchus has brought together the original creative team to present a new production some twenty years later, and whilst it remains affable and spiky in its presentation of male relationships it doesn't quite hit the mark in terms of substance or nuance.
Three long-time friends Serge, Marc and Yvan find their relationship under strain following Serge's decision to buy an overly expensive and completely white canvass. What follows is a discussion, primarily, of what constitutes 'art' and how the weight of our opinions hinges on our need to impress our friends and peers.
In a year that has tested relationships between friends and family members on issues such as Brexit, Trump and the Nobel Prize, the enduring appeal of the play is the question it raises about human ability to 'agree to disagree'. Real friendship may certainly provoke a degree of tongue-biting in terms of political opinions, but when it comes to taste and art, how much hand-sitting can human beings really endure?
Reza's structure is the play's greatest asset, balancing the opinions between the characters and their introductions to the audience with the overall dramatic drive. In short monologues that break the fourth wall the audience are invited into the relationship from multiple angles, only to watch it unravel as their true opinions are shared gradually, with the audience always ahead of the curve.
For all its narrative simplicity Art succeeds in its casting which has the potential to draw repeat audiences to see the shifts in tone and relationships throughout each cast change, something that certainly helped the original London run. The trio must feel well integrated in order for their relationship to convincingly be disrupted, and the short hands between them rely on dexterity and a degree of comfort in their exchanges. Here Tim Key, Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell certainly find the humour in their threesome but the deeper tones are sometimes lost, keeping the play running firmly on comedic tracks and at times playing exclusively for laughs.
Mark Thompson's minimalist white box design extends the metaphor and creates caverns of space for the drama to occupy and it's stylishly lit by Hugh Vanstone with some delightful music by Gary Yershon. Warchus directs with a gentle ease but at times it felt slightly rushed and knowing, like a greatest hits tour of an artists you've never seen before which may leave newer audiences feeling like outsiders.
There's no doubt that this is a universally funny play and is successful in expanding a esoteric debate into the universally understood human realm, but I ultimately found it frustratingly inconsequential. A significant part of Reza's narrative rejects the nature of art criticism itself and its function in airing an opinion in order to sway or impress others, so in many ways I find this review wholly unnecessary. Feel free to disagree, after all, it's only an opinion.
What the Press Said...
"This feels a little bit like the theatrical equivalent of a reunion tour, like the Rolling Stones doing the rounds one more time but with better lighting."
Ann Trenneman for The Times
"Is Reza’s play, in the end, a modern classic or a modish crowdpleaser? I lean to the former view but the answer, as with Serge’s enigmatic painting, lies in the eye of the beholder."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"It’s a big stage for just three actors and a lot of bare white walls, but they more or less command it. Reza’s precise writing unfolds in a series of short, sharp duologues before the explosive, extended finale à trois. It’s surface gloss rather than real profundity, but appealing surface gloss all the same."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard