I know for sure that I saw Yasmina Reza’s mega-hit comedy at some point during its record-breaking eight-year run in the West End that started in 1996. But when I went, exactly which of the many casts I caught – and, most crucially, any sense of understanding quite why this work above all others rode the wave of the late-90s zeitgeist – now entirely eludes me. Art, it seems, didn’t make much of an impression first time around and that so-what sensation is replicated by this 20th-anniversary revival by original director Matthew Warchus.
Reza’s premise is delightfully simple. Three middle-aged buddies find their friendship suddenly thrown into turmoil by Serge (Rufus Sewell) and his 100,000-euro purchase of an all-white canvas. But while it’s superficially about art, Art is really about deeper and more primal human emotions, about the jealousy and fear and sense of competitiveness that underpin this longstanding triangle of friendship. Yet while some people delight in ascribing great profundity to Art, what I saw was an amusing-enough 90-minute buddy comedy featuring the sort of French men who carry paperback novels in their pockets.
One thing of which I’m certain is that it is always a great pleasure to see Sewell, feted of late for his television work in The Man in the High Castle and Victoria, back on our stages. Sewell has an irrepressible mischievous twinkle in his eyes and does fine work as the flinty Serge, whose impetuous buy causes such angst for Paul Ritter’s determinedly anti-cultural Marc, anxious to stamp out any signs of perceived pretentiousness whenever and wherever he sees them. Marc takes the arrival of Serge’s painting incredibly personally, and it’s left to the ineffectual Yvan (Tim Key), about to embark on an ill-advised marriage, to try to broker some flailing attempts at peace for the trio.
Where this production fails to convince is in the basic fact of this friendship. The strong-willed Serge and Marc are comprehensible enough as a pair, but why they would have chummed up with drifter Yvan is hard to comprehend. A discrepancy in ages between the three actors doesn’t help matters either. The Old Vic is a big stage for just three performers and a lot of blank walls, and there’s a struggle at times fully to inhabit the space, especially given that a majority of the 90-minute duration is taken up with a series of short, sharp duologues.
Where Warchus does triumph is with two standout set pieces. The first sees Yvan give a wonderful lengthy speech of gradually mounting rage at the fraught and absurd business of wedding invitations. Key earned a deserved round of applause for this. Even better is the clever choreography of a closing moment when the three friends sit together eating olives. No words are spoken, but everything about their bubbling anger and confusion is intricately expressed by the way they throw the stones into a bowl. Art is enjoyable enough, but nowhere near a masterpiece.