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by on 5 March 2019

The Art of Friendship


by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton

David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers’ Old Vic Production at Richmond Theatre until 9th March, then on tour until 30th March

A review by Matthew Grierson

For a script conceived of and set in Paris it’s interesting, and especially interesting now, to see how very British Art plays. First, there are the characters’ anxieties about art, and being seen to like or have an opinion about it. Next, there is its use of characters who are not so much physically trapped as stuck by their situations and backgrounds, as in the classic British sitcom. Which of course then means there’s class … and it should go without saying this is not in short supply given Nigel Havers’ presence in the cast.

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He and friends Marc (Denis Lawson) and Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) may be constantly circling one another, but one still gets a glimpse of the classic Frost Report sketch configuration in their sharp exchanges of glance and ability to strike a characteristic pose, even though on the occasions that they are actually shoulder to shoulder – few and far between given the increasing volubility of their arguments – the hapless and, one infers, lower-middle class Yvan actually towers above his wealthier pals.

Broadly speaking, he is the common man for whose allegiances Serge and Marc contest in their views about a painting, white lines on a white canvas, for which Serge has just paid 200 grand. To say that Serge is the radical and Marc the conservative, or Serge the modernist and Marc the classicist, makes too glib a scheme of so humane a piece as Yasmina Reza’s play – it’s more three men went into a bar than a Platonic dialogue – but it’s difficult to watch the way their increasing polarisation drags Yvan after them and not to be reminded of similar conversations on social media today. In one of his last monologues, Yvan avers ‘nothing beautiful ever came from rational argument’, and a quick glance at the news will confirm the timelessness of Art in this regard.


One needn’t reach too far to describe the escalating antagonism between Serge and Marc through the analogy of an old married couple, which is clear long before they decide on having a ‘trial period’ for their friendship near the end of the play. In this set-up Yvan becomes the child in a custody battle, and Tompkinson’s performance can consequently veer one way and t’other thanks to the irresistible force of Havers and the immovable object of Lawson. So for all that the script emphasises Yvan’s passivity and neutrality we do see him become pretty exercised, whether by his friends or his impending wedding, though this anger seems spontaneous rather than dramatically earned or natural to his character.

The gear change would be less forgivable were Tompkinson not so endearing in both modes. At his most put-upon, he is the surrogate for the audience on the stage, unable to see why a painting has stirred the latent animosity of his two friends. At his angriest, though, Tompkinson turns up on Serge’s doorstep and has a meltdown about how he and his fiancée can manage to invite their respective stepmothers to their imminent nuptials. It’s a tour de force that certainly does earn the applause it receives.

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While the production stages friendship as a pastiche of familial relationships, there’s no getting away from the fact that Art is a play as much about middle-aged men as it is about a painting. Yes, all the characters have, or have had, women in their lives, but these women appear solely in the men’s dialogue, more often the proxy for the men’s feelings towards one another: Serge’s takedown of Marc’s partner Paula is really an expression of his antipathy to his friend’s taste in women, much as Marc’s fury has been spiked by Serge’s taste in art, while Marc in turn predicts a horrible future for Yvan after marriage.

After this it would be quite understandable for the characters to end up going their separate ways, but it’s a joy of this performance to sense that, beneath it all, they cannot help but remain friends. How else would they have been able to say the awful things they have to one another? In the earlier scenes they’ve been unable to articulate their true feelings openly, and dialogue is shot through with asides from each of them much as the white canvas is hatched with white diagonals. But like Chekhov’s felt-tip pen, which is dropped into proceedings early on, these soliloquies prepare us for the expression of grievances in the denouement.

The movement between monologue and duologue may also be a dramatic expression of observations made about whether we come to be ourselves as a result of ourselves alone or as a function of our relationships with others. These observations have been made by Dr Finkelzohn, Yvan’s therapist, and carried around on a slip of paper by the latter, offering a gnomic comment on the action that counterpoints that of the equally inscrutable white painting.

Or perhaps the play is already commenting on itself? Each of its opening also scenes works as a dissection of the preceding one, switching characters so that two can share their concerns about a third who isn’t present. These onstage reviews could have saved me a job except that they’re done a scene at a time, and are actively shifting the comic dynamic as they take place. This keeps the piece moving at a fair old lick, but then so too does the tendency barely to pause for breath during the dialogue. This is effective when the characters are accelerating into a rant, less so in the establishing monologues when they can leave one struggling to take everything in (I’m looking at you, Lawson).

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The pace is kept just this side of runaway by director Ellie Jones, and together with Mark Thompson’s effectively minimal design, in which the three men’s apartments are identical save for a revolving wall displaying their distinctive choices of conversation-piece art, gives the show an impression of classic Hollywood comedy. There’s another nice touch in that Hugh Vanstone’s lighting casts diagonals across the wall, as though through a Venetian blind, to signify Serge’s home and the painting he will eventually hang there. In the end the lighting also affirms the direction’s suggestion that we need to synthesise all three characters’ viewpoints to appreciate art – or Art – with the actors picked out respectively in the red, yellow and blue that must be blended to become white.

If art/Art is ultimately the occasion for some good-natured pontificating, then you’ll forgive me the previous thousand-odd words. But what this show does with a lick of paint remains remarkable.

Matthew Grierson
March 2019

Photography by Matt Crockett

From → Drama, Reviews

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