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Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, to have a thankless child”


Just why IS Marc so angry about Colette’s painting?

The central premise of ‘ART’ is that Colette has bought a painting – very modern, very conceptual – a completely white canvas, its pristine whiteness relieved only by several barely visible lines, running diagonally down from the upper left.


And Marc HATES it – a visceral hatred that distorts his whole face as he derides it as a ‘piece of white shit’.    Neil James’ whole body was rigid with anger and his face reddened as he bent forward to get a close look.   “How much did you pay for this?”


Turns out that Colette has paid a fortune – two hundred thousand francs – for her Antrios painting.  But – “There are three Antrios paintings in the Pompidou, and mine’s as good as any of theirs”.    Sophie Dearlove is dressed all in black: black top and black leggings, and she wraps her arms around herself in barely suppressed glee as she stands in her all-white apartment showing off her all-white possession.  She’s … smug.    Stylish, and smug.


So why the anger?    Marc is an aeronautical engineer; very professional and one assumes competent in his field.  Used to being an authority figure, to being RIGHT.   Colette’s a dermatologist – obviously successful in her own career: she’s made enough money to be able to indulge her love of contemporary art.   


As the play develops, though, we learn that Marc and Colette’s friendship goes back many years.  People always see only their own version of events, but it looks as if Marc was originally the dominant partner in this relationship – the one with the superior intellect and opinions.  But more recently, Colette has developed her own tastes and culture, in areas of which Marc is ignorant.    At one point, he rails at her for having used the word ’Deconstruction’ in an earlier conversation.


It seems that Marc has been eclipsed by his ‘pupil’ – he’s no longer the teacher.  I wondered if in the past they had been lovers as well as friends; that would increase the sense of betrayal, and his anger.   I couldn’t help thinking of Joe Orton’s relationship with Kenneth Halliwell – where Halliwell was so broken by his one-time protege’s success as a playwright that he ended up beating Orton to death …


Lovers can be of either sex, of course, and in Yasmina Reza’s original script the painting’s new owner was a man, called Serge.  Roger Kay’s production’s use of a woman gave the story an interesting new dynamic.    Colette and Marc argue about Marc’s partner Paula, too, as she reveals that she can’t stand the woman’s passive aggressive behaviour.   Marc is outraged, but the exchange felt very natural, as possibly coming from one woman against the woman who may have replaced her.


There are three characters in ‘ART’, though, and it’s time to talk about Ivan.   Ivan’s been friends with the other two for about the same length of time they’ve known each other, but they rather look down on him as being weak and indecisive.   He’s been a butt to their wit, and now he’s almost like an immature child in the middle of warring parents.    Duncan Henderson gave us an Ivan who was tortured by the impossible demands of his overbearing family ties and of his impending wedding.  Now, to top everything, he’s being asked to take sides in a bitter argument – to tell them what HE thinks of Colette’s painting.  His face contorted as he squirmed in a chair in Collette’s apartment, a delivery that went on and on as he recounted his woes, arms wrapped around himself protectively like a small child being shouted at.   All three actors gave us bravura performances, but Henderson’s stood out even in this company.  Unforgettable.


I wondered if the author had written Ivan as Jewish.  Not cartoon Yiddish, but with the classic  Jewish angst about his impossible parents and in-laws, his weekly visits to Finkelstein the psychiatrist, his new job in his uncle’s business following his previous involvement in ‘textiles’.  (Had Ivan been in the ‘rag trade’?)  Whatever – Ivan is going through hell at the moment, and the others aren’t helping.   When Marc forced Ivan to give his own opinion – “for once!”, the poor man looked like a terrified rabbit, caught in the unforgiving gaze of a weasel.


Interesting value structure to the play.  The painting’s price is considered outrageous, but nobody comments on the cost of Ivan’s therapy.  Two hundred francs a week is ten thousand francs a year, and Ivan’s been seeing his shrink for years.   It mounts up …


Duncan Henderson designed the play’s set, too.   This was as minimal as Antrios’s painting – basically just white sheets as the stage’s backdrop, lit in white for Colette’s apartment.  That changed to a red wash for Marc’s place, pointing up his angry persona; and then a green wash for Ivan’s room.   Simple, and very effective, allowing seamless scene changes where the stage chairs and tables stayed in place as the lights changed, and the actors simply moved aside a sheet to reveal a different painting on the wall of each location.


I’m not going to reveal how the argument resolves itself – but if you go to see the Rialto Company’s production of ‘ART’ you won’t be disappointed.  The unexpected ending comes as  quite a shock, and it’ll overturn your perception of the artwork.   ‘Art’ was first produced in 1994 in Paris, and opened in London in 1996.  Coming only a few years after the Young British Artists phenomenon, and the astronomic prices of contemporary art, it was very much a play of its time – but its examination of friendship, status and betrayal are timeless.  


This is a great revival of a thoughtful piece of writing, with spirited delivery from all the actors.   Catch it if you possibly can.