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A CurtainUp London Review
Marc: "Yvan's a very tolerant guy, which of course, when it comes to relationships, is the worst thing you can be." 
Serge: "Yvan's tolerant because he couldn't care less . . ."
Rufus Sewell as Serge (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Yasmina Reza was a French actress who visited a friend who had bought a white painting. When she saw it she laughed and then he laughed. The seeds of her hit play Art lie in her imagining what might have been different if he hadn't also laughed.

Set in Paris, first written in the mid 1990s, but of an almost indeterminate modern age, Matthew Warchus' production appears to recreate the original except maybe that the price of the eponymous painting has gone up five fold in twenty years, but some of that increase in value may be to do with the fall of the pound after Brexit!

Paul Ritter is the disapproving stuffed shirt Marc, the instant art critic who fails to understand Serge's (Rufus Sewell) purchase of the white painting with its white diagonal stripes by Antrios, a fictional painter. I really enjoyed Rufus Sewell as Serge's excitement when he reveals the painting to Marc, and then to Yvan (Tim Key) for the first time: his looking again at the wonderful painting and then at his friend's face to gauge their anticipated reaction and back to the thrilling painting. It is Marc's inability to appreciate the artwork which mystifies Serge.

Although this is a friendship of 15 years, the disagreement about the Emperor's New Clothes, in this case a white painting, has both men judging the value of the other's friendship. Marc is convinced that the Emperor has nothing on and thinks that Serge has more money than sense and has been conned into paying £100,000 for a foolish image. on the other hand, Serge, a successful dermatologist, is obviously making plenty of money out of skin imperfections and is happy to celebrate the clean lines of his white painting.

The hapless Yvan is dragged into the quarrel to adjudicate, each hoping to win him over to his cause. Yvan tries to please both men by telling them what they want to hear but is exposed when Marc and Serge compare notes and Serge starts to hark on Yvan's opinion of Marc's sense of humour.

Other than the fun with the devoured olives, the disposing of the stones and of course the wonderful bitchiness of two men verbally sniping at each other, I am not sure how much I remember of this play from the 1990s. One unforgettable moment is Yvan's long monologue on the family politics of arranging a wedding with warring step parents, on both the groom and bride's side. I also remember one actor aping the chimps at the zoo but missed that this time round.

If Art has a theme other than the pettiness of quarrels, it is how easy it is for people to lose the friendship with one another and for perception bias to reinforce held opinions.

The stylish furniture is the same as the late 1990s/early 2000s production, and the clear cut grey green walls elegant with high ceilings. The painting itself is brought onto stage initially for admiration and then desecration and, afterwards for a description of its cleaning.

I greatly enjoyed Rufus Sewell's performance taking the artistically moral high ground as he establishes himself as more appreciative of modern art than Marc. I very much admire Paul Ritter's comedy acting but wonder whether the French written part gives him enough scope? If the point of modern art is to unsettle and evoke an emotional reaction, be it anger or pain, then the white painting does it to Marc. Serge on the other hand might be caught up in the pretentious following. Tim Key is memorable as Yvan whom both the others refuse to empathise with.

Art has some greatly comic moments and great repartee but will this be enough to attract a new generation of theatre goers?

The play has enjoyed countless productions all over the world. For Elyse Sommer's review on Broadway in 1998 go here

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Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter, Tim Key
Design: Mark Thompson
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Mic Pool
Music: Gary Yershon
Running time: One Hour 30 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 18th February 2017
Principal Partner : Royal Bank of Canada
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st December 2016 performance at Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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