Anyone is entitled to their own opinion when it comes to taste, as is the case with art for example; everyone’s a critic ready to defend their specific viewpoint. But how far are we willing to let our pride and self-righteousness damage our friendships? Are we defined by our friendship dynamics rather than by our independent opinions and thoughts?
The contemporary, mixed background, French playwright, Yasmina Reza, tackles and expands on such issues in her 1995 piece ART, first performed in London in 1996 and translated by Christopher Hampton. With director Ellie Jones at the helm and also experienced actors of both the stage and screen: Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson, this new touring production of the original Old Vic staging still feels fresh, funny and touching two decades on.
When modern art lover Serge (Havers) proudly shows off his latest obscenely expensive artistic acquisition, a white painting with white diagonal lines on a white background, to his friend of twenty-five years, the enraged connoisseur of traditional art pieces Marc (Lawson), it sparks a debate on the topic of subjective taste and preference for art. While both are attempting to coax their mutual friend Yvan (Tompkinson) into forming a majority judgement on the painting, he himself is struggling with the prospect of marriage and the stressful duties of wedding planning. Through a combination of heartfelt, yet satirical and insightful dialogues and soliloquies, Reza explores modern society’s materialistic focus and the importance of interpersonal connections over pride.
The relationship between the three characters is brilliantly fleshed out and brought to life by Havers, Lawson and Tompkinson: the back and forth quips and digs between Serge and Marc are not only dynamic and entertaining but also reveal their currently strained, yet emotional bond. Tompkinson’s Yvan treads the fine balance between the two opposing forces with humour, hurt and a growing sense that his opinions are increasingly becoming his own, not his friends, as the play progresses. Together on stage, all three actors shine individually and in the different constellations, formed around their artistic tastes regarding the white painting. However, a stand-out moment in the performance is Yvan’s re-entrance into Serge’s home and his ensuing hilariously touching monologue detailing the intricacies of wedding invitations and ordering of family members. Tompkinson’s range of emotions, characterisation and varied delivery have the audience rearing their heads back in laughter, while never missing a beat. The rollercoaster of the almost five-minutes long speech, spoken at breakneck speed, is then brilliantly undercut by Havers’s deadpan delivery, showcasing the individual strength of each actor’s performance.
The minimalist monochrome set design by Mark Thompson acts as an effective counterpoint to Hugh Vanstone’s colourful lighting design, rounding off a stunning production of a modern classic.
ART not only challenges modern preconceptions about its eponymous title but also forces us to reevaluate our own relationships with others and ourselves.
Image: Matt Crockett via Capital Theatres