Art Review

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 16th February.

Reviewed by James Knight


When Serge (Nigel Havers) spends a fortune on a piece of modern art, it sparks a conflict between him and his best friends, brash Marc (Denis Lawson) and tolerant Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson).

Art’ first premiered in the UK back in 1996 at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London, and this touring version of the recent Old Vic production has lost none of the biting wit of the original. The performances of all three actors show them at the peak of their abilities, particularly Tompkinson, whose epic five-minute rant about the difficulties of arranging wedding invitations with mothers, step-mothers and his fiancée, was not only a highlight of the show, but resulted in well-earned applause.

The entire show rests on the shifting dynamics of the trio, who has the upper hand in the argument of the painting, and then later, their friendship. Is Marc’s disdain for the painting (a white background, with white diagonal lines) justified, or cannot he not see the effort it took to create the piece? Is Yvan too willing to surrender his opinions to others? Is Serge just trying too hard to seem more important and ‘cultured’ than he is? What does it mean to be ‘cultured’, and how can it have any meaning where opinion of artwork should be subjective?

The dialogue rattles through with extraordinary pace (see the five-minute rant above), a three-way tennis match of comradery and antagonisation, and all three actors are clearly enjoying batting the ball at each other, whether arguing about the meaning of the phrase ‘a man before his time’ or who has changed the most and for the worse over the years. Havers’ delivery of ‘the way she waves away cigarette smoke’ is a masterclass of laidback disdain. It’s clear these men need each other, but how, after all the dust has settled, could they piece it back together?

Everything else in the production is suitably stripped back – an almost blank set and some clever lighting design allow the audience to focus solely on the interactions of the three friends.

Despite playwright Yasmina Reza’s assertion that this play is not a comedy, ‘Art’ is a witty, often profound examination of its characters, and, no doubt like the art depicted within it, will reward audiences with different revelations upon repeat viewings.