Art at the Old Vic Theatre
Given the boldness of some of the Old Vic’s programming this year – including a “new” Beckett in No’s Knife, a dazzling musical production of Groundhog Day and Glenda Jackson’s King Lear – Yasmina Reza’s Art is a curiously safe note to end 2016 on. This production is near identical to the one that ran from 1996 to 2004, with original West End director, and current Old Vic chief, Matthew Warchus back at the helm. Only the cast is different: Rufus Sewell, Paul Ritter and Tim Key are the latest trio to argue over the infamous white painting.
One does get the sense that not much has been done to change things up this time around, with a few of the music cues especially coming across a bit Seinfeld. Yet it’s clearly a hell of a lot of fun to perform, with Ritter, Key and Sewell tearing through the play’s various (and increasingly violent) disagreements with a visible sense of glee. Art is at its best when it does away with the fourth wall-breaking monologues and quick cuts that clog up the first half an hour or so, the humour really coming alive when the three men are forced to soak in each other’s unwelcome company.
Despite ample laughs the whole thing skirts by without much weight because it lacks both the intellectual rigour to make the debates stimulating, and the emotional warmth to make the central friendship believable. There are indeed flashes of depth: while Key’s Yvan is the most transparently delicate member of the group, both Sewell’s Serge and Ritter’s Marc have a fragility of co-dependent male ego that first fractures and then cracks completely as they test how much honesty a friendship can handle. However, the trio end up feeling less like characters than walking, talking viewpoints, only in each other’s presence because the play says so.
This 2016 version of Art does flirt with relevance. In a year defined by extreme opinions it’s almost too easy to place each character on the political spectrum. Serge is the smug liberal, baffled at anyone who can’t grasp his version of “modernism”; Marc is the rage-filled man who feels cast aside by a world he is unable or unwilling to understand; and Yvan is in the middle, one of the many undecided that opt out of offering an opinion entirely. Yet, one suspects this is more brought to the play by a politically weary audience than elicited by the Old Vic’s fun, if somewhat pointless, revival.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Art is at the Old Vic Theatre from 20th December 2016 to 18th February 2017. Book your tickets here.