Yasmina Reza’s witty play has been amusing audiences since it first opened back in 1996. This week, it takes to the Derngate Auditorium to make Northampton laugh about Art.
Art is, in essence, a play about a friendship, the foundations of which are challenged when Serge (Nigel Havers) buys a large piece of artwork for a not insignificant amount of cash which Marc (Denis Lawson) disapproves of, and Yvan (Stephen Tomkinson) gets caught in the crossfire.
We’re never told how the three very different men came to form their friendship, but we quickly witness decades full of angst and middle-class white-male repression tumbling out thanks to a white painting. Serge, a many times divorced Dermatologist, Marc, an aeronautical engineer with a penchant for homoeopathy and Yvan, the stationery salesman on brink of marriage and an emotional breakdown are an odd combination, with poor Yvan stuck between Serge and Marc’s increasingly bitter, and personal, feud.
Dennis Lawson‘s Marc is snippy and more than a little sassy, popping sugar pills as he attempts to win back Serge’s affections after describing his newly acquired “masterpiece” as a “piece of white sh*t”. It’s not long, however, before he launches into a full-on personal attack. His opinion is the only one that matters to him, and even at the height of their increasing tension he cannot believe that anyone who doesn’t share his sentiments can be right. Stephen Tomkinson manages to draw some amazing reactions from the audience as the put-upon Yvan, not only a well-deserved round of applause mid-show after a particularly wonderful monologue about wedding invitations, but also a sympathetic “awwwww” later in the show as he finds himself stuck in the middle of his friends’ dispute. Battling with his own neuroses, he understands more about the artwork than either Serge or Marc can comprehend. Not as highly strung as his companions, Tomkinson’s Yvan is an “everyman” character who cares more about his friends than his friends’ opinion of him. Nigel Havers is masterful as Serge – argumentative, suave, and dripping with a sense of self-righteousness, he battles away in his corner of the higher ground before descending into name-calling and fisticuffs. He excels at the cutaway moments to the audience, effortlessly switching between ranting through the fourth wall to calmly returning to the conversation.
For a play that is now over 20 years old, Art feels entirely current and relatable – after all, this isn’t a piece destined to “deconstruct” the art world, but instead look at the fragile building blocks of friendship, especially male friendship, and how one seemingly simple thing can derail it. Serge and Marc’s quarrel, although multi-faceted and certainly not just about the art, is drawn into harsh relief by Yvan’s more pressing mental health concerns – a real-life problem juxtaposing their first world issues over an expensive canvas. Despite their intensifying dislike of one another Art is also hilariously funny – the three performers all have superb comic timing, expertly using every insult as the opportunity to raise a laugh from the audience.
The set design by Mark Thompson is glorious – much like Serge’s purchase, it at first appears to be a blank canvas – a sparsely decorated luxury apartment with a gallery feel to it, but there’s a beautiful rotating panel to mark the change of location between Marc, Serge and Yvan’s homes. The lighting from Hugh Vanstone is a piece of art in itself, casting long, white, diagonal lines across the back of the set which serve, again, much like Serge’s purchase, to break up the expanse of the white background. Ellie Jones‘ direction is not afraid of silence or stillness – at one point a minute or so passes with no words, and very little movement, but their actions manage to scream a great deal about their characters and their crumbling relationships.
Running at around 85 minutes, Art is a quick-fire battle of wits featuring some marvellous comic timing, a lot of long words and quite a lot more hilarious bickering.
Performance: Mon 14 May 2018, Derngate, Northampton
Art runs at Royal & Derngate (Derngate Auditorium) until Saturday 19 May 2018. Times and tickets available at www.royalandderngate.co.uk
Becki is a theatre lover originally from Birmingham. She founded On Stage Northants in 2017, and is passionate about promoting Northampton performing arts. Can usually be found behind the scenes, and occasionally in front of them too.