Art, by Yasmina Reza, currently playing at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. Tel: 0171 369 1736. Art is also on Broadway at the Royale Theatre, 242 West 45th Street. Tel: 212-239-6200.
It is no coincidence that Art, a play by Yasmina Reza, depicting three Frenchmen called Serge, Marc, and Yvan arguing over the value of a canvas, continues to run in London’s West End. The play’s themes reflect brilliantly in the pool of London’s creative climate. If you enjoy art and the debate over what is best, modern, or traditional, then you will appreciate this play’s poignancy and sharp insights.
The long-running play, which first opened in London in 1996, has garnered both commercial and critical success. It has been nominated for five Olivier Awards and won Best Comedy. Christopher Hampton translated the play into English and Matthew Warchus staged the play with great flair. Some very fine actors, such as Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, have appeared in productions.
A fifth cast took over in February. Comedian Jack Dee plays Yvan, and Roger Allam, who played Serge previously now plays Marc. Mick Ford plays Serge.
I was lucky enough to see the previous production at the Wyndham Theatre, with Nigel Havers playing Serge (many will recall his performance in the film Chariots of Fire). When Serge buys an abstract painting, he pays a high price, both in francs and in the cost of testing his friendship with Marc (played by Malcolm Storry) and Yvan (played by Ron Cook), their mutual friend. Serge takes Marc’s outspoken criticism of his new painting as an attack upon himself. At first you are inclined to laugh and agree with Marc–the picture is a blank canvas! Abstract art relies on the viewer’s gut response as much as upon the artist’s talent. There is more at stake here than Serge’s reputation. How can people with such different opinions remain friends?
The playwright also explores the idea that a famous artist’s name increases a picture’s worth and the buyer’s status, regardless of its appearance.
Art reflects upon the debate between lovers of abstract art and those who favour figurative art. The play focuses upon individuals’ relationships with each other, asking whether we should tell a friend the hard truth (as we see it) about something important to him, or whether we should accept that its value ‘lies in the eye of the beholder’, and hold off from criticism. Ultimately, the playwright asks, what is friendship worth?
The actors I saw in the play were all excellent, and their rich and varied dramatic experience showed. They swept the audience into their characters’ world with no trouble at all. Nigel Havers in the role of Serge perfectly portrayed a delightfully charming and sophisticated man with a strong, vulnerable streak, while Malcolm Storry, as the dogmatic, supremely confident Marc, delivered some witty, acerbic comments. Ron Cook as Yvan, also gave a remarkable performance. Smaller in stature as well as in intellect when compared to Serge and Marc, Yvan has some gut-wrenchingly sad moments, as well as some hysterically funny ones.
More reviews from the June/July 1998 Issue of British Heritage:
Michael Leech previews London’s summer theatre fare (Theater)