ART, one of the most successful stage plays in theatrical history, is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh for one week only (Monday 11 to Saturday 16 February). Bringing to life our trio of unable to agree on ART (or pretty much anything at the moment) friends, Serge, Marc and Yvan are Nigel Havers (Serge), Denis Lawson (Marc) and Stephen Tompkinson (Yvan).
Originally a French language play by Yasmina Reza that premiered in 1994, ART was then translated into English by Christopher Hampton and directed by Matthew Warchus and opened in The West End in 1996; the rest as they say is history.
At one level, our play is about Serge spending the enormous sum of £200,000 on his new prized ART purchase – a modernist, all white canvas by 'Antrios'. Is the painting all white though or different levels of white and subtle greys? That is open to interpretation. Serge’s joy at his new purchase though is soon lost when his long-time friend Marc declares his opinion of the work. Fellow friend of both men, the usually easy going Yvan is soon pulled into the debate on ART and from that point on, many other elements in their lives, and friendships comes under scrutiny.
ART is a dialogue driven play and the use of dialogue here not only between the characters, but direct to the audience is charming, very funny at times and very effective. Wisely, there is no interval in this production and the running time of roughly 90 minutes passes all too quickly as you are so swiftly pulled into the lives of our three friends and their relationships with one another.
This is what I call “no hiding place” theatre as there is nothing on stage here for any actor to hide behind, and any weakness in their performance will be glaringly obvious to any audience in seconds. To make a play like ART work, you need very skilled actors with a lot of stage experience (and other media). Here, with the trio of Nigel Havers (Serge), Denis Lawson (Marc) and Stephen Tompkinson (Yvan), we have exactly that. All three are not only very good at what they do and can often convey more in a gesture or look than many less accomplished performers can do with many words, but they work so well against one another on stage too. There are some real gems of performance here from each, but Stephen Tompkinson and his impending wedding invitation issues monologue is a classic and received well deserved applause from the audience.
At one level, ART is about the indefinable issue of personal tastes in art. I am sure that many of us have looked at an exhibit in a modern art gallery and seen nothing of interest when others around us have praised the same work for many reasons. Are we missing something, or is it really a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? The title of the play is ART, so of course the commercial aspects of art gallery sales and what makes an artist “fashionable” and expensive come under sharp scrutiny.
There is of course far more to our script than just “The Art World”, and that is good because the in-house jokes on modern art are simply not enough to have made this play the phenomenon that it is – the joke would long ago have worn thin and stopped being funny if that was all there was here. What really makes this play work for me is very sharp observational dialogue on the nature of the long-standing friendships between our three characters. Often this dialogue is very funny, but often it is brutally sharp in the exploration of how Serge, Marc and Yvan have survived as friends for over 25 years and the often complex inter-relationship needs and dynamics that hold everything together. At its very heart, this is a friendship that seems to guard its space against all incomers, all perceived intruders, whether that intrusion is from people, ideas, or 'Antrios' white modernist paintings.
ART is well directed (Ellie Jones) and well designed (Marc Thompson) with subtle, but very effective lighting design (Hugh Vanstone). The very simple set allows easy change to different rooms with minimal stage movement that does not interrupt the flow of the dialogue in any way.
Review by Tom King