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Review: Art (Old Vic)

Matthew Warchus returns to Yasmina Reza's iconic play 20 years after it opened on the West End

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Art is the play with the painting: the big white one that cost a lot of money. Serge has laid down €100,000 on a 5' by 4' white canvas. Marc thinks that ludicrous; thinks the painting, "shit." Yvan, caught in the middle, has the casting vote. Three men and a little painting.

Art was, of course, a huge hit in the mid-nineties. Short enough that you could grab dinner afterwards (at a time when most plays weren't). Successful enough that one profile of its writer could run to a mere five words – "Yasmina Reza est tres riche." It ran for eight years, and caught something of the British public's fascination with – and scepticism of – contemporary art. A year before Reza's play opened in London, Damien Hirst had won the Turner Prize with his bovine formaldehydes.

Twenty years on, our attitudes to modern art have changed. We've had lightbulbs and beds, and the Tate Modern is the third most popular tourist attraction in London. Hirst is a roguish, sell-out, old-hat artist – but he is an artist nonetheless. Art's arguments – or rather our allegiances – have changed as a result. We are, I think, more inclined to accept Serge's blank canvas baby as legitimate; less, to think it any good. He insists on the painting's brilliance, seeing in it all kinds of shades and patterns that, undoubtedly, exist – a white beyond white. Marc, meanwhile, calls bullshit: Emperor's New Clothes.

It is a toothsome debate, one that knocks into so much art theory. Is art's value objective or subjective? Financial or aesthetic? Reza's play pits novelty against classicism, and irony against sincerity. But it's as much about those arguing as their argument; the tossers as much as their toss. Each man feels judged for their judgement, as if they are the sum total of their tastes. It mutates into a question of identity: Are we the people we perceive ourselves to be or those others perceive us as? The three men have changed with age; friends, grown apart. Serge has reinvented himself in a mid-life crisis; Marc has shut down, retreated into conservatism.

Perhaps Art isn't unlike the painting at its centre. You can see in it as much as you so choose. Given its title, it's quite possible Reza knows as much. Is it art or entertainment? Superficial comedy or sharp social satire? Reza might be mocking contemporary art or something more ingrained in our consumerist culture: its obsession with novelty, its irony that grows into a kind of sincerity. Seen through the prism of identity politics, you could even see Art as a critique of middle-aged white men – that ultimate mainstream. It skewers their pretensions, privileges and presumptions. Or does it simply indulge them?

Matthew Warchus has, essentially, rolled his old production out of storage. Mark Thompson's set is the very same white room with the same white chairs around the same white table. Hugh Vanstone lets the same slatted-blind light fall at the same angle. It's quite possible that Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Key give the same performances as the original cast.

After all, there's not much you can do differently. Sewell is perfectly smug as Serge: louche, husky and handsome. His is the sort of square-jawed mug you want to smash in with a hammer for its sheer chiselled superiority. As Marc, Ritter is plain indignance personified, a maddening scoff of a man, while Key, inevitably, brings his own distinctive tone to Yvan. He wavers beautifully. As he stares, squints, and tilts his head sideways at this white square, Key draws the most brilliant blank – mild panic just visible beneath the surface of his complete lack of an opinion. No wonder the others turn on the poor sod.

Reza's play lets these three circle each other, two always ganging up against one. They tear strips off one another, lay into shortcomings and insecurities. It's savage, but it's almost too self-possessed. The argument turns round and round. It spins on one person, then the next, as Reza rotates the upper hand, always, but always, in control. Her writing is calculated. Her characters exist solely to be toyed with.

As a result, the one thing Art isn't – surprising, this - is funny. Oh, it's theatre funny. It's ‘this-cost-£65-so-it-must-be-funny' funny. It's just not actually funny. It's too nineties sitcom for that. It tries too hard for its humour, strains for it, hangs its characters out to dry – all of them – for it. Reza scorns these three middle-aged men, rightly so perhaps, but the laughs she aims for are unsavoury. Serge is a pretentious berk; Marc, a belligerent buffoon; Yvan, the wettest of wet fishes. Art doesn't care for any of them. It merely winds them up and lets them pop, hoping every burst blood vessel will be funnier than the last. The play is so aware of its own absurdity, so smug, so…French.

It might be the most brilliantly awful play ever written – and, worse, it's one step ahead. Knock it as naff, and you're as snobbish as Serge. Lap it up, and you're Marc. Sit on the fence and you're Yvan. It is a worthless masterpiece; a pedigree crowdpleaser. I can't stand it.

Art runs at the Old Vic until 18 February 2017.

Watch our video with the cast of Art