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20 Years On: Back To Basics with ‘Art’

The stage is practically bare. Three cream armchairs arch around a low coffee table. A faceless white canvas perches on the back wall. The set – in brutal honesty – looks bloody boring.

In the audience, couples recline in red velvet chairs, leafing through overpriced programmes and chattering over plastic tumblers of Pinot Noir.

Someone’s watch beeps. The lights dim. The show is about to start.

For the next 90 minutes, the original creative cast and the effortlessly comical trio of Rufus Sewell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter bring Yasmina Reza’s Art back to life for the first time in 20 years. The set – which upon first glance, looked plain – frames the performance. The comic timing is effortless, the chemistry between the actors sharp and the loaded sarcasm uproarious. The play, in all its simplicity, is a triumph.

Reza’s comic drama became a global success when it first opened in London in 1996, winning both a Laurence Olivier award and a Tony award in 1998. Such a preceding reputation only makes for pre-show suspicion. Yes, a good reputation is the lifeblood of theatre, but such established eminence is unheard of. Especially to someone who still rates The Lion King and sees Wicked as the epitome of modern theatre. But posters have been plastered on the tube. Critics have been waiting.

The programme gives away very little. The performance revolves around a piece of contemporary modern art. The eponymous canvas proves a point of contention for two reasons. Reason one: it is, as far as the eye can see, just a plain, white painting. Reason two: it happened to cost Rufus Sewell’s character, Serge, a whopping £100,000.

Serge’s purchase – and Marc’s vocal dubiety at such a buy ­– provides the foundation of the dialogue. Yvan struggles between the two hopelessly trying to make amends and in the process his own opinion. The canvas reduces the friends into a bitter, verbal brawl that rocks the very premise of their relationship and brings into question the bounds of their alliance.

So, how can a play that was launched twenty years ago possibly still be relevant? More so, why was it so highly anticipated? What did Christopher Hampton change to make it new, unhackneyed and relevant?

Very little.

Exquisitely calibrated, even a novice can see the brilliance of Art is in its mirroring the original. There is no twist, no alternate ending, just natural, original, honest acting.  Even knowing little about theatre, Hampton’s translation is strikingly artful, each sentence dripping with sarcasm and each delivery with wit. The heady nostalgia of the nineties lurks in the background alongside the refreshing 21st century approach fronting the show.

Towards the end of the play, the three men manage to make sharing a bowl of olives as tense as Russian roulette. No words are needed; each ‘ping’ of the olive pip bouncing back into the steel bowl is explosive, the gesture used masterfully to make the audience cry with laughter. The characters have been crafted so impeccably that such simplicity commandeers the piece.

This is what makes the play unforgettable. The set remains the same throughout its entirety, the acting minimalistic and the lines short and snappy. Hampton even manages to make a few beams of light a metaphor as Serge insists “it looks so different in the different light”. The acting seems effortless. The infamous white painting at the crux of the dialogue remains, over-archingly, an unquestionably white canvas.

Without overloading the play with up-and-coming and questionable devices in a desperate attempt to make the old new, Hampton has devised an entirely original ‘new’. As in, avant-garde less is more, in with the old and cheers to good, traditional theatre, built from proper acting and soul and minimalistic method. Art avoids the cheap, amateurish staging of Conor McPherson’s The Birds, or Philip Ridley’s hopelessly confusing modernist epic that was Arugula.

Such dramatisation was seen in the Almeida’s War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, alongside Let the Right One In and Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984. Increasingly, interpretative drama is proving original by drawing strength from pre-existing stories and tried and tested techniques.

Art is modern- but modern by attempting to do nothing other than what it always did on the tin.

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Words by Ally head

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