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The American masthead
1040 Abroad
Rufus Sewell as Serge, Tim Key as Yvan  in Art at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan Rufus Sewell as Serge, Tim Key as Yvan in Art at The Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

By Yasmina Reza in a translation by Christopher Hampton
Old Vic Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

Matthew Warchus calls 'Art', which he has revived after 20 years at the Old Vic, a 'big small play' and seeing it again after two decades what is striking is how perceptions of it change as you get older. What appeared to me in my late twenties as a mere amuse bouche, this time reveals itself as a play of some substance. Its richness has become more apparent with age because it leads us to reflect on how friendships change over time. It is also a play about identity, fear of change, tolerance and prejudice, and you can't get more 'big' or more current than that.

In its original London outing in 1996 with Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott it was a phenomenal success. At just 90 minutes it could be (and was) recast eternally with marquee names, just enough to fit neatly over the title. It had 8 years in the West End and 18 months on Broadway and it won every award going and was translated into 30 languages.

Christopher Hampton's translation of it introduced the young, female, French dramatist, Yasmina Reza to an Anglo audience, where she has since enjoyed ongoing success. The play works simply because it deftly explores the tensions and resentments which bubble under in all friendships, the little ways friends hurt each other without realising it or the mistaken ways they attempt to re-mould each other, and ultimately the way friendships just run out of steam.

Rufus Sewell, straight off his triumph in TV's Victoria, is perfect casting for Serge, the wealthy, suave, Parisian doctor who has just splashed out on a very expensive piece of modern art, a painting which is all-white. This so offends the sensibilities of his old friend Marc (a solid Paul Ritter), that the friendship teeters on the edge of collapse. Marc's tastes in art and life are more conservative and the arguments get heated. Long buried resentments surface and things are said that can't be unsaid and it's up to their placid, mutual friend Yvan (Tim Key), as ever, to forge a truce.

Sewell, of the twinkling eyes, just has to raise an eyebrow to get a laugh. It's a pure star turn but he also makes us believe that Serge believes in what he's doing. You understand his disappointment at the smug arrogance of Marc, or even worse the infuriating passivity of Yvan, but neither does Sewell shy away from Serge's more spiteful side.

A rather miscast Key doesn't totally convince as a long term friend of the other two, but he does get to deliver one of the play's highlights. This is when the hen-pecked Yvan's enters whilst in the middle of a glorious rant about the torture of his wedding preparations. This prolonged volcanic explosion of pent-up frustration elicits a deserved round of applause.

Warchus has staged it again with loving attention to detail and Mark Thompson's designs and Hugh Vanstone's lighting are again top class.



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