Yasmena Reza’s Art was the highbrow hit of the nineties. It ran for eight years in the West End. It conquered Broadway, where it won a Tony for Best Play. And it perfected the production flourish of using fresh, big-name re-casting to persuade punters back for a second – or third – viewing.
So a hit, yes, and a touring success ever since; but has this Art stood the test of time? Twenty years on, director Matthew Warchus has revived his original, minimal production at the Old Vic and the tug of the play’s premise remains as sharp as ever.
Three friends meet over a period of weeks. One of them, Serge (Rufus Sewell) has bought a painting at great expense that is entirely white: a white canvas with diagonal white stripes. His old friend Marc (Paul Ritter) is appalled. “You paid €100,000 for this shit?” he scoffs, triggering a rift in their friendship that the emollient Yvan (Tim Key) does his best to heal.
Rufus Sewell as Serge and Tim Key as Yvan; above: Paul Ritter as Marc) and Sewell (photos by Manuel Harlan)
What unfolds from there is a sharp study in character and ego (or the lack of it) with ideas about modern art fizzing through it and – crucially – big laughs. From the moment the painting was revealed the Old Vic audience were chuckling in anticipation and the cast (Key started out as a comedian, Ritter is best known for TV sitcom roles) rode the comedy all the way.
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There is simply nobody better than Ritter at doing exasperation and he threatens to steal the show as the embittered traditionalist Marc, ranting at Serge’s folly. When he turns his fire on people-pleaser Yvan, infuriated by the latter’s “lack of substance” Ritter’s voice takes on a new register of fury and we realise that what started as a play about art becomes about how adult friendship can curdle and split.
Then at the end, the play shifts once again: the line “Nothing great or beautiful in this world was ever born out of rational argument” makes us rethink what has gone before. Some of those deeper currents of the play go under-explored in this revival but the beautifully barbed comedy is irresistible.
Art is at the Old Vic, London, until 18 February