I originally saw Art nearly twenty years ago at the Theatre Royal in Brighton. While I recall that I enjoyed it immensely, it’s long enough ago that the details are forgotten, so I was very pleased to receive tickets for a performance at The Old Vic as a Christmas gift from my partner. What would this new cast make of the classic dark comedy, twenty years later?
Three friends are thrown into conflict when one, Serge (Rufus Sewell) buys a plain white painting for €100,000. His friend Marc (Paul Ritter) is horrified at the expense, and can’t imagine why anyone would pay so much for a pointless “piece of shit” (I tend to agree.) The third friend, Yven (Tim Key) takes a more balanced view and between the trio, their friendship is tested to the limits as they explore the classic question “What is art?”.
Of course, the play isn’t really about art at all. It’s is an examination of male friendships in all their complexity. Marc is sneering and aggressive towards Serge, deeming his taste in art to be pretentious. Serge of course is defensive, but he calls out Marc’s lack of artistic appreciation and apparent loss of humour. Yven by comparison is meek and sensitive, and tries to avoid the conflict entirely, offering varying views on the painting as the play progresses. It’s a fairly frantic affair where scenes are interspersed with monologues to the audience: each character gets their chance to air their real thoughts and we get great insight into the dynamics of their friendship. I’ve never been more entertained by a power game played with a bowl of olives!
The play is quick at 90 minutes and the performances are wonderful. Ritter as Marc is spiky and offensive, Sewell as Serge is sleek and composed, and Key as Yven is fabulous as a hapless people-pleaser who feels that no-one ever listens to him. The set is sparse and minimal, with forced perspective to make the space seem larger, and subdued simple lighting to let the actors and the painting take centre stage.
I really enjoyed Art. While it’s generally accepted as a dark comedy, I found it to be quite tragic. These three men seem to struggle with what their friendship really means to each other, and I related to this in many ways.
Art remains a funny, wry, darkly comic tale and I thoroughly recommend it.