Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Theatre Review: Art

As premises for comedies go, an argument over whether or not someone should give house room to a white painting - white lines on a white canvass - must be one of the more leftfield. That it’s author is French should perhaps come as no surprise.

Welcome to the world of Art, the modern classic black comedy which has been performed around the world in approximately eight billion productions. Ok so that may be a slight exaggeration, but it's fair to say it has been done a lot. With the Old Vic's new production introducing a new cast to the original 1996 West End creative team, is it really still worth anyone's time? Pleasingly, yes it is.

Translated by Christopher Hampton from Yasmina Reza's French original, Art tells the story of three friends, one of whom buys a ridiculously expensive white painting. The reactions of the other two leads to the near disintegration of their friendship. It is a comedy but, like many of the best comedies, there is a viciousness, a seriousness and a darkness at its heart.

Though there have been many Art casts down the years, this one is a welcome addition to the list. Paul Ritter is acerbically great as arch frenemy Marc, his dry one liners delivered with the appropriate amount of affection and malice. Rufus Sewell is a joyously unsympathetic Serge, all faux warmth and righteous indignation (and achingly attractive but that’s by the by). Tim Key is the star though as Yvan, the only character who’s not an utter shit. Key laps up the audience’s sympathy through a combination of everyman affability and understandable neuroses. For those who know the play, his wedding invitation breakdown is an absolute joy and the unquestionable highlight of the production.

The original creative team have certainly aged well too. Notably praiseworthy amongst those is the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus who directs here and does it with considerable aplomb. The pacing of the production, not something I usually immediately notice unless it’s wrong, is immaculate; pacey but not rushed. And the simple design, unchanged as far as I can tell from the mid-90s original, is still deceptively simple and effective.

Yasmina Reza’s writing is great - punchy, relatable and very funny. There are some fantastic, memorable lines; 'life denying woman' is my new favourite insult for example. In the post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth age the play’s focus on how people react to being disagreed with feels very relevant and the emotional punches it draws out of this premise are fantastically vivid. My only small criticism is that it does very obviously sound like a translation, which of course it is, in that some of the dialogue and particularly the monologues sound a bit clunky to a native English ear. But that doesn’t detract from the overall effect though and is really just me nitpicking.

Having never seen another production of Art I can’t say where this sits in the league table. However, judged on its own merits this production is great: very funny, brutal, pacey and a fab night out.

Art plays at the Old Vic until 18th February.

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