‘Art’, the Play, Old Vic

We just watched ‘Art‘, the third play by Yasmina Reza, the 57 year old French writer and actress, who has been collecting many prestigious awards over the years (Molière, Tony, and Laurence Olivier Awards for ‘Art’ alone) and who is known for her satirical plays about the middle classes, the two best-known of which are, you guessed it, ‘Art’, and ‘God of Carnage’. ‘Art’ premiered in Paris in 1994 and in London two years later. The play was translated into more than 40 languages. I saw the German version in Munich with my parents and my sister in early 1997 and didn’t like it that much, mainly because my Mom was so uber-enthusiastically ecstatic about it that it put me off (it’s simply not cool to like what your parents like when you’re very young).

The English-language adaptation, translated by Christopher Hampton, opened in London’s West End in 1996 and went for an extremely successful straight 8-year run.

The current production at the Old Vic is directed by Matthew Warchus starring Tim Key of Peep Show and Edinburgh Fringe fame, Paul Ritter from Friday Night Dinner and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, as well as Olivier-Award-winner Rufus Sewell.

After our recent disappointments with The Libertine (2.5 out of 5) and No Man’s Land (2.5 out of 5) we thought we’d play it safe this time with one of the most successful plays of recent history and with one of our favorite venues, the Old Vic. Geesh, our last real good play was X at the Royal Court, our #1 London theatre choice, and we missed the second half because my wife was too scared to give it a go.

The play is about a successful dermatologist called Serge, who buys a completely evenly monochrome white oil painting (“if you screw up your eyes you can see diagonal lines on it”) of a famous artist for €200,000. When he shows it to his acerbic, bitter friend Marc, who is a successful aeronautical engineer, Marc immediately calls it a “piece of white shit”, causing their friendship to deteriorate. Then comes in the third friend, Ivan, who tries to bring Serge and Marc back together, but to no avail (according to an interview Yasmina gave, she is indeed friends with a dermatologist who did what Serge did, and she didn’t see any value in it just like Marc doesn’t, but different from the play they laughed about it and didn’t fight).

We’re usually no great fans of purely self-referential middle-class plays, unless they’re straight-forward, funny, light-hearted comedies, or alternatively very deep and dark, which cannot really be said of this satirical play. This comedy (Yasmina insists on calling it a tragedy) is neither light-hearted nor deep (it is at times dark, but more in the sense of cruel words rather than in any deeper sense), but somehow it works.

No one in their right mind can (we presume) honestly say that the issues at question are very deep.

Could you argue that this play is about tolerance and prejudice? We think not. Are we really going to have a serious discussion about if you as a lover of classical or surrealist art can be friends with someone who’s into abstract art? C’mon. Maybe this play takes art as a metaphor and it is about tolerance and prejudice in general. The content and angle of the dialogues as well as the title of the play clearly say ‘no’.

Yes, you could try to argue that the play is about modern art, about the question if the price of a piece of art influences our view of its artistic value, if modern art is all about being new, trendy, and modern, and no more about being artistic, but no, it really isn’t. The dialogues are mostly not about art in any meaningful sense. There is the obvious part where the characters argue about a white canvas being or not being art, but it doesn’t go far beyond that.

Yes, you could try to argue that the play is about friendship, but when you look a bit closer, this is not about friendship in a deep way. The three protagonists do not seem to be able to engage in real friendship. They are lonely, cynic, superficial, unhappy, middle-aged men, whose links with each other are more like the relationships between casual buddies rather than actual friends. They’re driven by their petty desires to outdo and impress each other (except for Yvan, who is ‘unstable’, simple-minded, vulnerable, dependent, and helpless).

These are men that do not know what real friendship is, and, in this case, as a consequence, the play is also not about true friendship. The playwright could have chosen to write a play about friendship even with the main characters being unable to understand friendship, but she chose not to. The play takes their inability for granted, and while it implicitly and indirectly criticises their inability, it does not actively question it, it accepts and examines their feelings as feelings of men who are unable to understand friendship, it is about the problems of a self-absorbed, cold, materialistic middleclass, which it intentionally portrays as such, often with surprising warmth, sympathy, consideration, familiarity, and understanding.

We have not figured out how the play is still managing to be so riveting and why it doesn’t feel all superficial (and maybe isn’t). It would seem that to a large extent it comes down to the excellent skills of everyone involved from playwright, to translator, producers, director and actors. We didn’t really feel that the play is particularly thought-provoking or extremely funny, but it manages to find a very good balance between being good entertainment (the audience laughed every minute of the 90 minute play) and being just deep enough in order to make you feel vaguely intellectually stimulated in a very pleasant, eloquent way. It certainly provides sufficient ammunition for the next dinner party conversation or two.

Alvin Klein, in his 2001 review of New York’s Paper Mill Playhouse performance quite aptly wrote “’Art’ is one of the most craftily titled plays in the contemporary theatre. It creates the illusion of depth and substance, but it is slick and accessible, all veneer, recalling Oscar Levant’s memorable remark about Hollywood. That was the one about having to dig through the tinsel to get to the real tinsel underneath.”

An added benefit of this preview as with most previews is that actors do not always remember their text and have to rely on the prompters on the side of the stage. In this particular performance tonight, Tim Key had to re-do a whole scene four times, including all three actors leaving and re-entering the stage, to the great amusement of everyone involved (but him). We also tend to find that the audience is usually more ‘into theatre’ (proper theatre geeks, mostly) and light-hearted during those previews.

Overall, we’d give this production a 4 out of 5. Previews continue until 19th December. Regular performances continue until 18th February 2017.

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