Long before the shock of seeing Tracey Emin’s unmade bed as an exhibit in a gallery, or Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 227: The Lights Going On And Off’, modern art has evoked strong emotions.
In this single-act play directed by Peter Harding-Roberts for Everyman Theatre at Chapter in Cardiff, the purchase of a blank canvas for a ludicrously high price pits pretentious Serge seeking to impress his friends against classicist Marc who scorns the work as a “piece of white shit”. When he asks “Are you going to have it framed?”, Serge laughingly replies “It’s not supposed to be framed. The artist doesn’t want it to be. It mustn’t be interrupted. It’s already in its setting”, echoing what Mark Rothko said about keeping his paintings frameless to increase their impact on the world, as part of the world rather than separate objects.
Their friend Yvan is drawn into the debate, whose appeasing nature suggests he may provide an opportunity for some resolution to their opposing views about modern art. More than the debate about the merits of the artwork though, ‘Art’ explores the art of friendship as the antagonists realise the fragility of their long-term relationships and question their validity, the painting itself a catalyst for amplifying hidden tensions in a longstanding three-way bromance.
Seasoned Everyman actors Brian Smith and Gregory Owens are joined by Michael Taylor Moran in Yasmina Reza’s 90-minute narrative, structured not in formal scenes but in pithy little episodes, mostly duologues between two of the three protagonists, punctuated by confessional asides that break the fourth wall. The action takes place in Serge’s apartment where two large off-white armchairs are separated by a settle that serves to prop the painting centre-stage as well as a seat when all three characters need to sit. The geometry of the minimalist and monochromatic set allows the three of them to keep their distance from each other which I believe helps accentuate their differences, although I heard someone saying they wished the actors got physically closer as one might expect of true friends. Yet others have criticised the playwright for failing to establish a solid emotional base for her characters’ friendship, that these men are just archetypes, but I disagree. We don’t need to know the origins of their friendship, just the characteristics that account for their differing responses to the artwork in question, and these are well-portrayed.
In the end there is a twist that leads to the suggestion that the canvas represents a man who moves across a space and disappears, a universal metaphor for life itself perhaps, in the same way Creed’s Work No. 227 is interpreted as signifying birth (lights on) and death (lights off). I will resist identifying which character interprets the white canvas in this way as it might spoil the enjoyment of a play I would recommend seeing, for its nonstop cross-fire of crackling language and performances by three actors who capably hold our attention throughout as their levels of exasperation rise and fall according to the strain of their characters’ efforts to keep their friendship alive.
In the programme notes, the director quotes the playwright who considered her play as much a tragedy as a comedy and challenges us to disagree. That ‘Art’’ won the Molière Award for Best Author and the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play suggests the play works, and this performance also, because it is both.
Art runs at Chapter until Saturday May 13th