“White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.” For Sondheim’s fictional Georges Seurat, as for so many artists, the process begins with the white page. In Yasmina Reza’s play, which starts as a kind of treatise on contemporary vs traditional art (whatever that means) and ends as a surprisingly acute discourse on male friendships, the white page is the end result. It is the artistic telos.
The whiteness in question is a painting by fictional artist Antrios, white diagonal lines on a white background which, in the right light, looks white. It has been bought by dermatologist Serge (Rufus Sewell) for €100,000 and it’s almost bankrupted him. When he invites his old and old-fashioned friend Marc (Paul Ritter) to look at it, Marc does little to hide his derision. This painting, this “piece of white shit” as Marc calls it, causes the friendship between the two men, mediated by the peaceable Yvan (Tim Key), to tug and strain until it snaps and the three of them reveal some brutal truths about each other.
I was 6 when the play’s original production, also directed by Matthew Warchus, opened in London (and 14 when it closed after a long succession of star casts, including Ken Stott, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Jack Dee, Frank Skinner, David Haig, Anton Lesse, Roger Allam, Judd Hirsch) so I can’t speak to its resonance back then, but the debate between old and new schools has never really gone away. There’s still a cadre of snobs who sneer at the Turner Prize every year as if it’s some egregious new affront each time. French writer Reza claims the play is based on a true story, when her friend bought a white painting for an extreme amount, and the painting itself is a canny device, an inversion of Malevich’s seminal Black Square. Reza shrinks the discussion down, but the play is the ‘representation versus not’ squabble, and the clash between price and value, in miniature.
For Ritter’s frank and furious Marc, who has a little pastoral landscape hung on his wall at home, with no vanishing point the point of the white painting vanishes. He’s upfront about his views. Supercilious, yes, but honest too. Serge’s superciliousness is more insidious. In fact, he’s a bit of a wanker. Yvan is caught somewhere in the middle, a little bland but desperate to impress. Mark Thompson’s design captures the essence of the play in one simple gesture: each of the three chairs on stage represents one of the characters, an ornate antique affair for Marc, a contemporary steel and leather number for Serge, and a boring, functional seat for Yvan. All white, of course.
It’s a French play so, naturellement, it’s been translated by Christopher Hampton, Gallic interpreter par excellence (he was responsible for the spate of Florian Zeller plays earlier this year, as well as Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Sometimes one of the characters talks to the audience, sometimes they engage in dialogue, sometimes all three go hell for leather in crosswired matches of manipulation. It all remains just about the right side of boring – even despite the excellent performances of all three cast. The trouble is that the play is, partly, about an iconoclastic and radical and divisive work of art. A piece that polarises opinion, that shatters friendships. But the play itself, the vehicle for talking about this radicalism, is actually fairly banal – and, twenty years on, slightly dated.
Despite two or three points where it’s impossible not to laugh out loud, there’s a persistent sense that this should be funnier – not that it could be, with Key in particular eking humour out of every twitch of his eyebrow, every pathos-pulling, exasperated line – but that it should be. Perhaps that’s the fault of the play itself, perhaps Hampton’s translation, but it may simply be because Key and Ritter are in a slightly more serious environment than normal – this is theatre, after all, not sitcom or sketch comedy – and so the expectation of the high farce we see in Friday Night Dinner, Ritter at his finest, or the deadpan bizarreness of the best of Tim Key’s comedy never quite obtains.
Endurably short at 90 minutes, the play has a lot to say about the calibrations and mollifications of friendship, and it’s briskly directed by Warchus, but it’s beginning to show its age. The play won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy and when Reza accepted the award she said, “It is intriguing to win the prize for best comedy, as I thought I was writing a tragedy.” For my money, it’s somewhere between the two. But that’s art for you, I suppose. Open to interpretation.
Art is on until 18th February 2017 at the Old Vic. Click here for more details.