Theatre review: Friendship in the frame in fine French drama Art

Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson in Art at the Grand Opera House, Belfast
Jane Hardy



Grand Opera House


YASMINA Reza’s play Art has toured the world and garnered many awards in the past two decades. I came to it fresh at the Grand Opera House this week, being one of possibly 10 theatregoers in the West who haven’t already enjoyed its French wit and aphorisms.

What’s the secret of its longevity? Watching the accomplished production based on the National Theatre version, one answer became clear. This is a play about friendship, never pure and rarely simple.

Reza identifies the way we like people who mirror flattering versions of ourselves. And that sure isn’t happening in the first scene when smug Marc (Denis Lawson) accuses his old friend, suave Serge (Nigel Havers) of buying a piece of s**t when he sees his newest acquisition. It’s an all white canvas like a Rauschenberg, a kind of emperor’s new artwork.

They spat – and Lawson is too speedy at the beginning but settles superbly – and this triggers a whole debate about not just their taste but what it says about them and about each other. Havers’s arrogance and his sense of rightness at having bought the £200,000 picture – he’s a dermatologist, so can afford it – are delicious.

But Marc remains affronted. The third friend, Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson), possibly the most ordinary, is facing different choices. He’s about to get married and his tour de force about who get their names on the marriage invitations received a deserved round of applause.

Yvan is also the emotional centre, as he reveals in a tearful passage where he divulges he can’t let go of the two older friends (parent figures?) because they saved him from loneliness. He also shares a hilarious self-help note from his shrink.

So what’s the denouement? The painting is defaced, restored to its snowy meaningless or meaningful identity, then hung. A few fibs reinstate Marc’s amour proper, Serge’s sense of being in control and Yvan’s family of friends. The triangle is restored, at least for a “trial period”.

Reza has said theatre is a “sharp mirror” and she holds it up to our ongoing vanities. Ellie Jones directs, translation by Christopher Hampton.

:: Until Saturday; see for details and booking.

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