Contemporary art, for the most part, is baffling. Whether it’s the abstract paintings of Rothko or Pollack, or the in your face attitude of Koons and Hirst, it’s easy to feel like there’s something missing in the era of modern art that the old masters possessed. The premise of Yasmina Reza’s Art starts with the purchase of one such painting, a seemingly blank, pure white canvas, with the slightest hint of lines drawn across it.
The buyer is Serge (Rufus Sewell), who purchases it at the neat sum of 100,000 Euros. Serge introduces the painting to his best friends, the older, caustic Marc (Paul Ritter) and mediator, “joker” Yvan (Tim Key), the former of whom is appalled that Serge, in all seriousness believes it was a worthy purchase, and the latter attempting to see things through Serge’s eyes. The disagreement in opinion over what constitutes a good piece of art fractures the three friends’ relationship, and before long, leads to a heated, extended argument that surpasses the original source of discontent.
Yasmina Reza’s script (translated from French by Christopher Hampton) is darkly humourous and has no shortage of wit. Comments that at first seem like throwaway remarks come back to haunt the audience in unexpectedly dry, laugh out loud one liners. Reza’s true skill though, comes through when the three men are finally united in Serge’s living room, where the play climaxes with its seemingly never-ending argument. Just when you think things are about to smooth themselves over, someone’s pride gets the better of them, and a snide remark leads to another round of verbal (and at one point physical) fisticuffs. But for all its length, there’s never a dull moment in the entirety of Art. Time and time again, the argument boils to a fever pitch, whether it’s about what good art constitutes, critique of the men’s chosen partners or simply questioning the very reason for their friendship in the first place. There’s always a fresh new wound to inflict or old scars to reopen, and Reza manages to maintain a delicate balance between deeply emotionally affecting lines and absurdly ridiculous burns.
All three cast members played their roles brilliantly, with Paul Ritter painting the complete portrait of an acidic, dismissive heathen of culture, yet surprisingly vulnerable in how others view him and his opinions, and Rufus Sewell’s Serge as simple, throwing around the “latest buzzwords from Builders’ Weekly”, yet keenly observant and perhaps the most acutely aware of the three. But it’s Tim Key’s performance as the seemingly sycophantic and long-suffering Yvan who steals the show. Key is given not one but two meaty monologues, the first of which is a brilliant, rapid fire explanation of why he’s late (to much laughter from the audience), and the second a tearful heartfelt pouring out of his emotions. The trio share a great onstage chemistry, easily playing off each others’ energy, and their emotions are highlighted even more amidst Mark Thompson’s simple, mostly white set, such that you can almost see the very colour of their auras flare to life onstage.
No doubt Matthew Warchus’ perceptive direction is also a heavy contributor to the great performance. Towards the end of the play, the three friends sit in silence, each eating olives placed on a plate between them. They nibble rapidly, angrily and audibly throwing the pits into a metallic bowl with a clang, almost as if partaking in a new ritual of renewal, a code shared only by the three of them. It’s poetic, and feels like a fitting denouement after the shouting matches that precede it.
For all its head scratching abstractness, Marc finally manages to see beyond the canvas for what it is, reading between the lines to see beyond the whiteness, making out a skier buffeted by a blizzard in a sea of snow. The white painting then, is key to the play’s themes of turbulence and conflict camouflaged in plain sight, and seeing things for what they really are. Despite beginning with the purchase of a painting, at its heart, Art is about the value of human relationships and putting others above one’s own pride. Art speaks of the dangers of sticking to one’s own perspective, refusing to give in, and realising what truly matters in the world beyond taste and aesthetics.
Perhaps then, conflict is best resolved when you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, or in this case, take a look through another’s eyes. There simply isn’t a universally correct view, and there’s no one piece of art that should be divergent enough to kill off age-old friendships.
Art plays at The Old Vic, London till 18 February 2017. Tickets available here
Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan