Art review – 90s ‘comedy’ becomes an old master

Old Vic, London
Rufus Sewell is poised and sleek in Yasmina Reza’s tale of three friends and a very expensive white canvas

In 1998, Yasmina Reza won a Laurence Olivier award for Art. The prize was for comedy. Reza, who is French, was surprised: “I thought I had written a tragedy.” But her drama pivots on a piece of modern art. Of course the British were going to think it a joke.

Twenty years after the play’s first London staging, attitudes have shifted. The white canvas over which three male friends fall out – is it beautiful? Is it just blank? – is less likely to be regarded as self-evidently the peak of pretentiousness. Still, derision usually trumps enthusiasm; a jeerer has an easier time being thought intelligent than an acclaimer. Rufus Sewell, sleek and poised as the man who buys the painting for €100,000, is at first greeted with superior titters. The sceptic Paul Ritter, a knot of irritation and scorn (all his limbs are crossed), seems to have won the day.

But things change. Ritter’s contempt is so vituperative that it begins to look excessive. In a smart piece of visual argument, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design throws a pattern of light on to one wall, as if through an unseen venetian blind. It looks like a rival painting; it suggests that white need not be plain or dull. The drama clicks around like a Rubik’s Cube, each short scene offering a change of perspective.

It is, of course, not really about painting but about friendship. Friendship that is destroyed as much by the way people speak as by what they do. Ah, the wincing when someone parrots a piece of jargon. In a talkative world, a lack of irony can seem like infidelity.

Art ran for eight years in the West End. Success breeds suspicion. I was braced to think it all veneer. I found the reverse. The verbal dexterity – Christopher Hampton’s translation is crystalline – is evident. As is the theatrical aplomb. This trio make the sharing of a bowl of olives look like a power game. But Matthew Warchus’s production also suggests a stirring of hearts. Tim Key, sweetly blurting as the man who hovers between opposed opinions, elicits a rare sound in the stalls: an audible whimper of sympathy.

• At the Old Vic, London, until 18 February


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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