From the start this production makes it clear that it is out of the ordinary. Just three actors, but all household names at the top of the profession. One act, no interval, ninety minutes of concentrated dialogue.
ART is written by Yasmina Reza, originally in French, and shows three long term male friends going through something of a crisis in their friendship. It is a quintessentially French drama – men have feelings and talk about them – yet it translates brilliantly to English in this version from Christopher Hampton. It is a dense and detailed script which would repay repeated watching, if you are lucky enough to get a second ticket!
The stars, Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson have each got a string of successes to their names on stage and screen, but this play allows them no room to merely coast on the wave of their fame. Their timing this evening was fresh and perfect as they laid into each other with Gallic levels of passion.
The simple but intriguing set represents the Paris apartment of each of the three characters, with a table and three chairs, one the famous Barcelona design by Mies van der Rohe. Everything is in pale, neutral colours, and each apartment has one painting present. All that changes is a painting, on a clever rotating part of the set.
Serge (Nigel Havers) has just bought an expensive painting from a famous modernist artist. His friend Marc (Denis Lawson), visiting, is not impressed by the minimist white on white canvas, in fact calls it ‘a piece of white shit’. Serge has spent a huge sum on the painting, and is affronted. Each in turn talk about this disagreement to their friend Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson) who is the least successful of the three, and facing imminent marriage for the first time. Much of the humour of the play comes from comparison of how messages change in this complex three way relationship. There are side issues that grow in importance, particularly the domestic traumas Yvan is suffering with his dysfunctional family in the run-up to his wedding.
The white painting and their various reactions are at the heart of this play. It is not about modern art as such, but about how our reactions to it can determine our characters. It becomes the focal point around which the three friends question and re-set their relationships with each other.
The staging has some clever conventions, which allow each character the opportunity to set themselves briefly out of the scene and to talk directly to the audience in confidence. These are handled with panache by all three, without a stumble or dropped syllable in a fast and complex script.
The play is very funny at times, and sometimes this audience broke out into spontaneous applause, even though author Reza was keen to point out that this is meant to be a serious rather than comic play. Above all though it is a brilliant depiction of character, and the interplay between friends close enough to be frank with each other. It is full of twists and turns and small surprises.
ART has toured for several for seasons now, and has been to Norwich Theatre Royal before, but still deserves the packed audiences that it commands. The show will appeal to many just for the chance to see three famous stars on stage together, but the play itself is hugely rewarding, enjoyable and thought-provoking. One of the most satisfying evenings of theatre you will encounter, self contained yet raising questions for all of us about how we conduct our friendships. Will the friendships of these three survive the arrival of the white painting? You will have to go and find out!
© Julian Swainson 2018
ART, Monday 23-Saturday 28 April at 7.30pm with Wed and Sat matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets £8-£35. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups.
To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.