Art | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 13 March ’18
By Elizabeth McGeown
“One of the most successful comedies ever!” screams the advertising material and if that isn’t enough to get the comedy fans of Belfast out of their houses and into the comfort of the Grand Opera House, no tag line will. Or perhaps the healthy crowd this evening are here because this three hand play has no weak hands: the cast consisting of old and trusted hands Nigel Havers, BAFTA-nominated Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson. Whatever the incentive, we’re all met with a black outer wall, a white windowsill set into it showing a light within. When we are finally invited in it’s by Lawson’s Marc, who wants to tell us about his friend – his best friend – Serge who recently bought a white painting.
Completely white, the white being broken up by a few diagonal lines. In white. In this, the Old Vic Production of Art presented by David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers the painting costs €200,000, necessary inflation and a currency update from the original amount of 200,000 Francs when Yasmina Reza’s play premiered in 1994. Either way, it’s a pricey piece of canvas (that “mustn’t be interrupted” by a frame, Havers’ Serge stresses to us) and what begins as a mild preoccupation for Marc as he chuckles with us at his friend’s foolishness begins to consume him, opening up the central themes of the play: the decline of friendship, power dynamics in male friend groups, how an argument can turn on a dime and settling for a poor substitute which is showcased in both the strained relations and snide comments and in Yvan’s job working with stationery and his upcoming marriage. When at a point in time the group’s friendship is declared over and both announce they will no longer be attending his wedding he, bereft, exclaims that they are the only people on the invite list with any “spark” presumably including his family and wife-to-be in this damning indictment.
The set is fairly minimal: long white walls meet the ceiling in cornice moulding. A cream table sits in the middle of the stage surrounded by three chairs in varying shades of cream or white. If the price of the painting didn’t already alert us to the class theme, the set does. This set is the house of each actor, a revolving panel on the wall revealing a different painting to tell us whose house we are in. Serge’s wall is empty as he is still unsure where to hang his new purchase, Marc chooses to display an ornately framed Flemish-style – although the Flemish label is debated fiercely – painting of a table with water jug and open window looking out onto “a view of Carcassonne!”, which he likes to remind us when his friends deliberately omit this detail.
The third friend Yvan – played to the neurotic hilt by Stephen Tompkinson – has on his wall a still life of three pears in a plate, rendered in shades of yellow and blue which are depressingly reminiscent of mould, later revealed to have been painted by his Father. This is typical of Yvan: family being more important than aesthetics and it’s a marked difference between him and his two friends for whom appearance is everything. Marc most of all, in his spitting rage that his friend bought a painting he didn’t like without consulting him but even the slightly more gently-mannered Serge is a Dermatologist, a telling career choice for writer Reza, for whom nothing is coincidence. Yvan is the sensitive of the group, the one to try and keep the group together when communication breaks down so comically, only to be turned on for weakness and indecision.
It’s not a laugh a moment comedy by any means though. While elements verge on Fawlty Towers-esque farce such as the wonderfully choreographed olive-eating sequence; the exaggerated chewing faces glorious with the only sound being the ‘ping’ of olive pits being resentfully placed in the ashtray, each careful to make sure their ashtray interval does not coincide with that of their frenemy it’s more of a cerebral jaunt with wry chuckles; a few exceptions being the audience’s chance to see Nigel Havers swear, which doesn’t come along very often and a frantic speech from British Comedy Award-winning Tompkinson about the politics of name placement on a wedding invite which, delivered in an increasingly breathless wheeze, gains its own personal round of applause.
Coming in with no interval at rather closer to 80 minutes than the advertised 90 it’s a triple layered character study with finely tuned performances all round that you’ll be thinking about for days afterwards, still wondering at the twists and turns in the disagreements. And you don’t need to know anything about art; these three chaps certainly don’t.
Art runs in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 17 March.