King's Theatre (venue)
11 February 2019 (released)
15 February 2019
Still going strong after 23 years in London’s West End, ART arrived in Edinburgh’s King’s theatre to much applause and laughter (sorry Yasmina Reza!). Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tomkinson are three bickering lads whose long friendship almost comes to an end over a particular painting…
French playwright Yasmina Reza’s multi-award winning play has remained a firm favourite with critics and audiences alike ever since it premiered in 1994 at the Comédie des Champs-Èlysées in Paris, before it went on to conquer other countries. Although a huge hit with British audiences since the mid-90’s the setting of the play (translated by Christopher Hampton) remains in Paris as it was decided that “English men would never behave in such a manner”. You could have fooled me!
Enter Serge (Nigel Havers) who has just frittered away a whopping 200,000 Francs (the play was written before the Euro took over) on a painting by a famed artist. Not any painting, mind you, but a completely white painting. Yes, that is to say a white painting on a white canvas, though Serge argues that hues of grey in the shape of subtle brushstrokes can be detected. Serge loves abstract and conceptual art and proudly shows off his latest acquisition to his long-standing friend Marc (Denis Lawson) who is nothing short of shocked when he gets to see the apparent masterpiece. In fact, not only is he shocked but incensed that his dear friend should waste such a vast sum of money on a “piece of white s**t”. You see, Marc has much more traditional tastes when it comes to art, as exemplified when we see him back in his flat with a painting on his wall that looks a lot more, well, traditional! When Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) drops by, Marc immediately tells him of Serge’s white painting. Yvan, who is a close friend of both Marc and Serge, makes a note to visit the latter, not just because of the painting but because he is always so busy with his own life he doesn’t get to see his mates often enough. In Serge’s flat he takes a look at the painting and lies to him that he thinks it’s very ‘interesting’. We also get to see Yvan’s place and there’s also a painting on one of his walls – once again quite different taste from Marc and Serge when it comes to art.
Eventually the friends arrange to meet in Serge’s place for a long overdue chat before they’re planning on going to a restaurant, but the evening soon turns to cynical poison as underlying issues threaten to ruin their plans: Marc is the first to arrive and before Serge can say “White’ Marc starts once again with his cynical remarks over Serge’s new painting. In order to calm him down, Serge suggests that Marc should read a book filled with thoughts and wisdom by Roman philosopher Seneca – another ‘masterpiece’ and apparently the key to personal happiness. The doorbell rings and Yvan arrives. He seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown over his looming marriage and other personal issues including wedding invitations and the fact that he hates his dead-end job (he’s a stationary salesman). Marc sarcastically suggests that Yvan read ‘Seneca’…
Before long our three friends quarrel and argue over this, that and the other though this being a comedy there are plenty of laughs, although playwright Yasmina Reza never intended for audiences to roar with laughter during ART (apparently it’s not something that ‘sophisticated’ theatregoers do in France). As the mood and general atmosphere escalates from argumentative to toxic, a bowl of olives gives our quarrelsome friends something to do, seeing how any attempt of conducting a civilised conversation seems doomed from the outset. Yvan rightly points out as to why they should be friends when all they can do is argue… before Marc starts bitching once again about the white canvas painting. Yvan eventually admits that he too thinks the painting is pretentious and a waste of money, resulting in Serge asking him for one of his marker pens… which he then – pointing at the white painting - hands to Marc with the words “Come on, do it!” The resulting ‘makeover’ is one of the funniest moments in the play…
The stage set by Mark Thompson is deliberately plain and white, and with the exception of sparse furniture and a rotating wall (suggesting three different apartments with three different paintings) there is little else – not even an interval. Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson are superb but it’s Stephen Lawson who steals the show with his breakneck speed delivery. Trust me, you’ll never look at art the same way again!
ART runs until Saturday February 16th (www.capitaltheatres.com)
(Photo: Matt Crockett)