Art - an absolute must see
Art is a theatre piece that's hard to beat
Relentless conflict and humour make this a must-see
Could three men on a bare set for a full hour and a half hold an audience’s attention, let alone keep them engaged and entertained? But when those three are Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson and the play is Art, now a classic that’s dazzled theatregoers for 20 years, it becomes a bit clearer how the audience just lapped it all up.
Art must be a one-off. It’s a modern comedy, written in French and it won the Molière prize in Paris. Transferred and translated into English it scooped an Olivier award on its first outing in the West End. Even so, a sparse cast, an equally stark set, one elegant unadorned room in a flat, and in translation to boot, hardly adds up to a recipe for instant rave reviews.
Yet Art is one of the funniest play by far to appear in modern times. And yes, the French are known for their sophistication but who knew they could produce a work so blended with insight and humour? What is the secret? And how did three actors manage to create such a tour de force of outrageous comedy with simply repartee – and, yes, one hilarious grapple when tempers flared? Last night’s audience members were shaking with laughter as the tension rose at at the Arts Theatre -- packed to the gunnels on only its second night out.
Serge, a divorced dermatologist (Nigel Havers) has bought a painting and invited his friend Marc (Denis Lawson) round to admire it. The painting is large and white, completely white. Marc is lost for words. But when he is asked to reckon how much his old friend has paid out for it, he gasps in disbelief when the guessing goes up to 200,00 euros. Marc cannot disguise his skepticism. 200,00 euro? But Serge senses his mockery and bridles with resentment. The third party – Ivan makes up the threesome, drawn into the debate against his will but brings a catalogue of complaints about his own forthcoming wedding. A relentless row emerges and vanishes, simmering under the surface is a sea of resentment and a maelstrom of competitive ferocity.
'The humour of the play derives from the comedy of recognition,' observes Christopher Hampton and he should know; he is the translator who has lent the play such traction with the truly brilliant English version of a play he found by happenstance. 'One day when I happened to be in Paris, I was walking past the Theatre des Champs-Elysées and I noticed Art was playing... I asked if I could buy a ticket for that night’s performance and was told. 'No, it’s sold out for three months.' Fortunately I managed to get a return and thought the play was fantastic. Back in London I rang my agent and asked him to get me the rights for an English version.'
Too late. They had already gone, bought by – Sean Connery. However Hampton managed to persuade Mr. Bond to give him the job of translation. It’s hard to say definitively but without such an amazing ear for nuance Art would not be what it is. The play is sharp and clever. But it wouldn’t exist for English speakers without translator Christopher Hampton’s profound understanding of British humour. A man of the theatre himself, his plays have been successful but none as colossally so as this one. Round the world it’s reckoned to have grossed £200 million.
Author and ultra chic Parisienne, Yasmina Reza however was startled at the transition to the London stage. 'At the first preview of Art in London the audience started laughing before it had even heard the first line.' Christopher Hampton recalls.That is easy to believe. Examining his new painting as the curtain rises, Nigel Havers manages uncertainty, pride and puzzlement in a profoundly funny way. Yet the skill of the dialogue is what makes the play great. Behind the words are bruised feelings, carefully concealed and then comically revealed by the interplay of the three characters.
No wonder, however famous they are, actors love theatre. There may be films galore and television roles for them, much easier than a nightly performance where every sigh, word nuance is noted. But they do it for the love of their true profession and when the reception is quite as rapturous as Cambridge Arts, who can be surprised?
Art is on at Arts through Saturday 24 February.