There is nothing more satisfying in theatre than a well-played pause, especially when it is painted in shades of grey and framed by calamitous comedy. In the Old Vic’s production of ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza and in translation by Christoper Hampton, this pause is caused by the controversial purchase of an entirely white – or is it? – painting by Serge (Rufus Sewell). The production is a series of erupting conversations between Serge and his two friends; Marc (Paul Ritter) and Yvan (Tim Key) who are less than thrilled by their friend’s impulse buy. What begins as a casual discussion over the nuances of “modern” art turns into a riotus row over the triptych’s friendship.
Yasmina Reza explores the complex truths hiding beneath the veneer of human friendship. Within the sparking monologues, duologues and final explosive dialogue between the three men, Reza traverses the changing tide of favour and the twitching betrayals through droll, unflinching humour. Her writing is brave and exploratory.
Warchus’s direction brutally propels the three men around the stage in constant, significant relation to each other. The white painting is invoked constantly throughout Mark Thompson’s design; a spartan “modernist” apartment, all white, with white square furniture reminding us of the infamous painting even when it is not onstage. The painting indeed feels like a character in itself and a times, rather ironically appears truly artistic as fractured silhouettes of the men are cast across it in Hugh Vanstone’s beautiful lighting plot. Notably, during these moments, all three are too absorbed in their own conversations to notice this. Often, the characters break from the scene and offer direct asides to the audience, the lights dimming and spotlighting them in a moody sunbeam from the stage right window.
Sewell shines as the berated buyer and strides the stage with the required swagger for Serge to function as Reza’s central protagonist. His performance boasts exquisite physicalisations and verbal dynamism. He presents Serge’s unconscious quest for Marc’s praise with delicate, masterful strokes. Meanwhile, Paul Ritter’s Marc maintains a disapproving determination in response to Serge’s praise of “modernism”. His herbal pill-popping is humorously handled. Between the two, their considering pauses speak loudest. Yvan brings a childlike and flustered incompetence to the group through Tim Key’s endearing performance. At one point, Key enters in hysterics and suffers a remarkable outburst, monologuing at a relentless pace for over three eye-watering minutes. I wept with a mixture of hilarity, disbelief and admiration. However, this outburst is the peak of Key’s performance. Yvan’s one-dimensionality does betray Key’s stand-up background.
The production is packed full of -high-quality comedy but also with sudden, surprising moments of honesty. Warchus’s interpretation of male friendship gives us glimpses of the men in all their reluctant vulnerability to each other, as well as to their own expectations. It is an unflinching look at what lies behind the small untruths we tell in the name of friendship and how they can grow. It notes that friendship is not black and white, as there is no such thing as white; only shades of grey.