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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Yasmina Reza’s 1995 ‘Art’ at the Old Vic is revived by Matthew Warchus with Tim Key, Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell. Christopher Hampton’s definitive translation is very slightly adapted. Mark Thompson’s design privileges neutralities of light grey walls and furnishings with a half-wall revolving. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting deftly plays with the infamous white painting itself. Slatted light plays on grey walls too. Gary Yershon’s score skewers chic pointillism. Till February 18th


Matthew Warchus stylishly revives Yasmina Reza’s 1995 ‘Art’ at the Old Vic with the trio of Tim Key, Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell. Christopher Hampton’s chiselled translation is very slightly adapted. Mark Thompson’s pristine neutralities of light grey walls and furnishings contrast with a half-wall revolving different paintings or a blank to portray respective flats. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting deftly plays with the infamous white painting itself: at one memorable moment enshrining the thing in a kind of nimbus. Slatted light plays on grey walls too, as if we’re in an expensive son et lumiere gallery and meant to be awed. Gary Yershon’s score skewers chic pointillism though certain hammered chords arrive as a nervous tic, like a drunk banging his head against a policeman.


Reza joked of her Olivier Comedy award: ‘I’m surprised, I thought I’d written a tragedy’ and this visceral but almost (dare one say, given the subject) cubist probing of the hairline crack between the two both affirms and denies Reza’s claim she’s not a cerebral writer. At one point the word ‘deconstruct’ gets the farcical treatment (such apparent pretensions always raise a laugh over here), but in fact it’s what Reza’s doing consummately to the reflex of male friendship: habits, bondings that turn out to be spasms of something either extinct or never quite uttered. Packed into ninety minutes (‘Art’ for once really is shorter than life) it’s just that concentration of themes that confirms this is a classic, durable work.


Marc can’t accept that his protégé Serge, the man to whom he introduced Seneca and Paul Valéry, has been seduced into paying 100,000 euros (this updated) for ‘white shit’ a 1970s canvas whose only depth resides in scumblings that throw beige, grey or even red tints according to the obliging Yvan who accommodates to Serge whilst not quite believing himself.


It’s Sewell’s Serge, the man who’s bought the infamous white painting, who hosts the scene where three-quarters of the play is set. After various duettings including the delicious introduction where Serge thrusts Marc to different views of a white canvas – the trio meet to devastating effect. It’s then the chemistry catalyses. Indeed the clownish, luckless but now people-pleasing Yvan of Key is finally accused of facilitating just this because he’s brokering common ground. He becomes the site, literally another white tabula rasa where the diametrically confronting egos of Ritter’s Marc and Sewell’s Serge skirmish and dump their venom.


Ritter’s all spidery contraction with a sudden unravel and pounce mechanism. He exudes the classically-limited French mind, a famously severe caste. Sewell, svelte, slightly hurt and seemingly reasonable, disguises his ferocity: like Yvan initially, he might feel that honesty’s an overrated virtue, but can’t let go of Marc’s disapproval. Serge leans to modish abstraction, boulevard philosophizing, a hazy relativism that infuriates Marc’s hard cynic stance. How did Serge get away?


You wonder at their original dynamics, and again that hidden all-white metaphor of tabula rasa, Serge’s mind written on – Marc’s striking phrase about only loving where there’s ‘my faith in their potential’ suggests just that. Whereas Ritter’s range mimics a dial of mild to acute splenetics, Sewell mercurially calibrates pretension (ways of seeing the painting) on vulnerability (removing it) to ganging up on Key’s Yvan, all checked with a patina of entitlement.


Key in fact delivers the great Lucky-like speech blurting out his lateness as part of a marriage preparation crisis, so haplessly neurotic the audience sigh as they might for a dog who just misses a hat-trick on a talent show. Key’s shaggy dog approach, resonant and eschewing brittleness steals this show. It’s Yvan who professes to know nothing, who also refuses certainties, the beginning of knowledge. But he can’t afford to admit this even to himself till the end.


It’s this betrayal of Marc’s ownership of Serge’s aesthetics that threatens to splinters three friendships, though we end with a pittering of olives if not breaking bread. Male friendships Reza shows here have often to revolve around things, a dynamic of knowledge as power. But when the certainties of that knowledge are literally erased we’re left with – as Marc finally projects meaning onto the canvas – a man struggling through a diagonal line of snow. Snow-blind perhaps.


And can we sneer twenty years on? In 1816 Turner’s paintings were dismissed as ‘pictures of nothing, and very like’, so now this painting mightn’t elicit the same giggle as it did to an audience not nurtured on the Tate Modern for nearly two decades. But it’s Yvan’s worry about telling another white lie to build rickety bridges back to Marc and Serge, that asks dangerous questions of just what the ‘art’ of friendship consists of, and why.