What's the secret to the longevity of Art? No, not as in the contents of the National Gallery, but as in the attraction playing just across Trafalgar Square. Yasmina Reza's comedy of Parisian manners and modern art (opened at Wyndham's Theatre in October 1996 and transferred to the Whitehall in 2001) is now, at the start of its seventh year in the West End, welcoming its 27th and final cast.
A large part of the joy of the piece is in the casting, and the subtle differences in the interactions of the trios that have performed it over the years. The show's clever producer, David Pugh, has been particularly adept at springing casting surprises, whether with sometime pop stars (Gary Kemp), television personalities previously not known for their acting (Jamie Theakston) or stand-up comics crossing over to straight acting (Jack Dee, Frank Skinner and Sean Hughes). Pugh has now achieved a coup of sorts to make the show go out with a bang, by recruiting a pre-existing comic trio to step smoothly into the play's well-worn shoes and, by an interesting coincidence, one who've been in the business almost exactly as long as the show has.
The League of Gentlemen first came to attention on the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1996, two months before this play premiered in London, and have since become one of the country's most popular comedy acts. Before opening, there was a fear that, in taking on a play, the League - aka Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith - might merely turn it into an extended sketch. Certainly Reza's play, with its multiple comic set-pieces around a central captivating idea (describing how the friendship of three men is fatally disrupted when one buys an expensive modern painting that resembles nothing so much as a blank white canvas), could be perceived as a series of sketches.
But both the play and the players cut deeper than that. For a start, the League boys have a genuine, rather than actorly, rapport that comes from having known each other for many years, and that gives Reza's fictional friendships huge credibility. And they're enormously accomplished stage presences, too. Though Shearsmith could slow down Yvan's furious diatribe about his impending wedding just a little - the laughs are landing so hard that some others are lost in the process - he's a particularly touching and vulnerable go-between, desperately sitting on the fence as conflict erupts between his friends Serge (Gatiss) and Marc (Pemberton), and finding, as you do, that those who sit on fences are liable to get splinters.
Reza's wittily alert and alluring play, and Matthew Warchus's effortlessly light, sharply lit and elegantly observed production that houses it, remain deeply pleasurable. And, in a culture where the Turner Prize gives many of us annual pause about the novelty and meaning of modern art, we're cleverly implicated to identify with the characters' anxieties.
- Mark Shenton
Note: The cast for this production changes approximately every three months and we are unable to re-review with each change. For current cast details, please see the Art listing entry. The following review dates from March 2001 when the reviewed cast was on tour pre-West End.
Yasmina Reza's award-winning Art is a stylishly crafted and sophisticated French comedy. It moves forward from a disagreement, whose apparent pettiness belies its power to act as a catalyst for complex underlying tensions in a previously uncompromised triangle of friendship.
Deconstruction in the form of an abstract painting is the metaphorical trigger for the disintegration of the long-standing bonhomie between middle-aged friends Marc, Serge and Yvan. As they unscrupulously dissect and attack each other's character, it becomes obvious that Art's forte lies in its well-conceptualised debate that exposes the apparently fragile framework on which their relationship perilously hangs.
Marc, the eldest of the trio, precipitates the disagreement over a white-on-white painting Serge has acquired for a staggering 200,000 francs. The painting represents everything that Marc opposes in art; he is a traditionalist and views Serge's ostentatious splash as a rejection of his values and of himself. But then Yvan enters the equation and the dominoes really start to tumble. Unlike the opinionated Marc, Yvan is complacent and indifferent. His excuse for not engaging in the debate is his impending marriage, which carries its own burdens. In fact, Yvan is a man who doesn't wish to offend and, although he secretly shares Marc's perspective, he prefers to endorse Serge's choice.
Christopher Hampton's translation works well in a British setting, whilst Rachel Kavanaugh's astute direction moves the proceedings along at a brisk but intelligible pace that conveys immediacy. Art has often been praised for its ability to constantly re-invent itself over the course of a five-year run in the West End. Its frequent cast changes - more numerous than in Neighbours - undoubtedly help rather than hinder this reinvention.
The touring cast is every bit as impressive as those that have graced the West End, and indeed two of the trio have already appeared there. The familiar faces - Roger Lloyd-Pack as the droopy Yvan, Nigel Havers as modern art sybarite Serge, and Barry Foster (replaced by Gordon Alcock on this review night) as the high-brow censurer Marc - dispense their wordy lines with just the right degree of pathos. Lloyd-Pack's long-winded speech about wedding invitations is particularly funny.
My only qualm with Art is that, in the overall scheme of things, above and beyond the cultural and aesthetic value of art, there's a certain absurdity about a plot in which three grown men (who should know better) permit such a material triviality to permeate and almost destroy their relationship. Perhaps in allowing the situation, Reza is acknowledging that, in the dynamics of cause and effect, the causal factor really is sometimes as insignificant as an uninterrupted white painting.
Note: The cast for this production changes approximately every three months and we are unable to re-review with each change. For current cast details, please see the Art listing entry. The following review dates from July 1997.
Art seems to change its cast more often than an ex-minister's alibi. No sooner had we got over the loss of the original, star-studded cast - Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott - than we must say goodbye to the equally capable replacement cast - Mark Williams, Anton Lesser and David Haig (who - in case you thought you recognised him - was indeed the hapless Bernard in Four Weddings and a Funeral). Not to worry, though. Given the quality of playwright Yasmina Reza's script, I don't think that any competent players could diminish this exceptional production.
The play is set in Paris and, in spite of the English actors and accents, it has a decidedly French feel to it. Very chic, very dry, very funny - very Gallic. The story is a simple one about three long-time but quite different friends - Marc, Serge and Yvan. The friends' differences are symbolised by their artistic preferences - Serge has a taste for modern art; Marc has a taste for traditional, landscape art; and Yvan, according to the other two, has no taste at all.
When Serge purchases an all-white painting for a whopping 200,000 Francs, Marc is outraged and feels betrayed by his friend's apparent pretentiousness. Thus ensues a row between the two. The hapless Serge, trying to keep the peace, gets caught in the middle as the fighting escalates and threatens to destroy their friendship.
On the one hand, this play presents a humourous satire on the world of modern art and those who take it (too?) seriously. On the other hand is the big picture about the binds of friendship - binds which change as we grow older, find our own individual grooves in life and, inevitably grow apart. It's a situation that, sadly, we can all relate to - but, gladly thanks to Art, still laugh about.
Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, Art has won - quite deservedly - the 1997 Evening Standard and Olivier awards for Best Comedy.
Terri Paddock, July 1997