A brief synopsis of “Art”: Serge (Rufus Sewell) buys a painting. It’s a €100,000 painting, a white canvas with some white lines embossed diagonally down it. Serge’s friend Marc (Paul Ritter) is outraged by this purchase, and it soon transpires that this isn’t mock outrage – Serge’s investment has exposed fault lines in their friendship as jagged and hostile as the lines on the canvas. Meanwhile, the soon-to-be-married, unusually highly-strung Yvan tries to keep things together as the three bicker their way around the stage ‘til one night, their relationships reach a head.
The interesting thing about Reza’s fourth play is that it pretends its central themes are friendship, ageing and disillusionment, and that art is almost incidental. In fact, the play is very centrally about art. At bottom, the play is about communication, about making oneself heard and felt against the grain of irrelevance. When the three protagonists periodically break the fourth wall, permitted soliloquies by the lights darkening on the other one or two characters frozen in tableau, it’s as if they’re painters breaking off, addressing the viewer with maulstick in one hand and palette in the other, justifying their brushstrokes.
Since art is the idiom through which Reza presses her themes, for most of the play she doesn’t take sides on the basic “modern art debate”: ‘How is it art if my three-year-old child could do better? How can a white canvas be art?’ Distancing herself from the debate seems deliberate: the play is not called Art, but “Art”, for the same reason that Bowie’s second 1977 LP is not Heroes but “Heroes”.
So the play’s final line (Marc admitting that the canvas is meaningful by saying it ‘represents a man who moves across a space, and disappears’) feels like a capitulation. Abstract art as reifying a journey, symbolising an experience, acting as a palimpsest for the memories the artist/viewer associates with it – Reza is quietly acquiescing in the idea of abstract art representing a sum of personal experience, thus being invaluable and uncritiqueable. Ho hum.
But the dialogue – translated by Christopher Hampton, best known for his icy, subtext-laden translation of de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses – is juicy and revealing. It goes for episodic revelation rather than subtlety, and the play is more enjoyable for it. Valves are opened by segues into slapstick, most notably when Yvan vents about the vexatious harridans jostling for position on his wedding invitation, or when Marc physically attacks Serge when the latter digs at the former’s girlfriend. (Reza has a winning eye for male insecurities. You can really get to a (straight) guy by insulting his woman or his sense of independence, and such digs occur in spades in “Art”.)
Until the end, the play never gets too soppy; a teary, heartfelt outburst by Yvan about his simple desire to be their friend is met by Serge after two beats: “Could we have a bit less pathos, please?” The sets are minimalist, with absurdly high walls that recall the set design in Welles’s The Trial. The lighting was a little strange, though: in Serge’s apartment, what looks like sunlight filtering through blinds is visible during the day and at night. I tried to find a possible justification for this, but couldn’t.
“Art” will find particular resonance among middle-class senescents seeing their younger friends ageing away. (The characters are at their least interesting when discussing the art itself, but this is intentional, and well-written enough not to grate.) The play may not be poignant where it wants to be, but there is something touching about the trio’s exhausting, inexhaustible friendship: their commitment to communication, and – for all Marc’s disdain for deconstructionism – the characters’ steady dressing down of each other ‘til their friendship is as bleached and blanched as the canvas that kicks off the plot. By the end, their friendship remains a rough beast, slouching away from the Pompidou, waiting to be born.
“Art” can be seen at the Old Vic until 18 February 2017.