sat 15/06/2024

Art, Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Art, Old Vic

Art, Old Vic

Acerbic revival of Yasmina Reza's bitterly funny comedy exploring male friendship

Paul Ritter is horrified by Rufus Sewell's new paintingBill Knight for theartsdesk

I avoided seeing Art when it was first staged in 1996, even though Matthew Warchus’ production created a huge buzz and won an Olivier Award for Comedy. (On receiving the award, Yasmina Reza joked that she thought she’d written a tragedy not a comedy.)

I knew the story involved an all-white painting bought for a whopping 100,000 and, in my paranoia, assumed the play was an invitation to snigger at contemporary art and anyone foolish enough to take it seriously. As a critic valiantly supporting young artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, I’d been made to squirm in front of a guffawing TV audience, and to join theatre-goers indulging similar prejudices would have been a betrayal of everything I believed in... or so I thought.

If only more men were this open and perspicacious!

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, we are invited to share Marc’s view of the canvas as “a piece of white shit”, but the play is not about art per se. The painting, or rather Serge’s pride in his purchase, is the catalyst for a surgical exploration of the relationship between the three men. Can their 15-year friendship survive the differences of opinion that threaten to rip it apart when Serge claims to be culturally more progressive than his friends?

Rufus Sewell is splendid as Serge, who has spent more than he can afford in what turns out to be a gesture of defiance against his erstwhile mentor, Marc, played equally brilliantly by Paul Ritter. The cultural conservatism rejected by Serge manifests itself in the traditional landscape, View of Carcassonne, that hangs on Marc’s wall.

It's easy to empathise with Serge’s (possibly misguided) enthusiasm and to condone Marc’s outrage that his former disciple now fancies himself as a collector and connoisseur. “Of course its bollocks,” he yells in one of the excoriating remarks tossed like a vial of acid into his friend’s face. “The older I get, the more offensive I hope to become,” he announces bitterly. 

Tim Key has more difficulty gaining sympathy for Yvan, who gets hysterical, snivels a lot, quotes gobbledygook spouted by his psychoanalyst Finkelzone and, in order to keep the peace, vacillates endlessly from one point of view to the other (Tim Key, pictured above, centre).  

Mark Thompson’s set consists of three cream chairs and a coffee table surrounded by grey walls that are bare save for a painting denoting whose apartment we are in (Yvan’s picture is a still life painted by his father). But Hugh Vanstone patterns the walls with diagonal shafts of light and punctuates various scenes with dramatic lighting shifts – a cue for one of the friends to share his thoughts with the audience in a confidential aside.

Matthew Warchus keeps things moving, but to fully command the space the actors have to rely on the emotional tensions generated by their increasingly acrimonious feud. Their bitter exchanges are extremely witty and, as they become more frank with one another, their analysis of the friendship becomes ever more acute. But therein lies the problem for me; I have never met a man who had the desire or the self-awareness to reveal his feelings with such clarity and subtlety. If only more men were this open and perspicacious!

This play could only have been written by a woman, since only a woman would have the necessary degree of insight. And surely the men she portrays so vividly must be the result of wishful thinking rather than real-life experience.

The acrid exchanges are extremely witty and, as the three men become more frank, their analysis of the friendship becomes more acute


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters