‘Art’, the comical canvas of emotion

A play that goes beyond white men arguing over a white painting.


by Jess Warren

Among a crowd of grey hairs and balding heads, one would assume that ‘Art’ was going to be an un-relatable production. Sat in the audience as the lights dimmed and the play began, it would have been easy to predict the performance as being a sitcom of the bygone era, perhaps similar to ‘Last of the summer wine’. However, this proved not to be the case.

The 90-minute performance directed by Ellie Jones has been heralded by critics as ‘very funny and exquisitely calibrated’. Originally a French comedy written by Yasmina Reza; her tale of three friends and a very expensive white canvas has been translated across to English by Christopher Hampton. Discovered as a sell-out performance located on the Champs-Elysées, the characters have since been given a British makeover. With a three-man cast, this continuous piece meant that the dialogue was the main aspect of the performance. The delivery and dynamics onstage between Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson created a well-timed supply of both stage comedy and verbal repartee. What was most impressive, sparking a spontaneous applause from the audience, was the precision to which the monologues were delivered. With one fast-paced monologue delivered by Tompkinson reaching almost five minutes in length, the audience sat enthralled by the talent of the onstage actors.

Furthermore, the simplistic set design of a white room with three chairs and a coffee table created a universal backdrop for the performance. The three, very different chairs act as a symbol of each character, ranging from a modernist seat to a fabric armchair and an antique chair, they serve as a symbol of each friend. With one rotating wall used to display different paintings to mark out each character’s home, the simplistic set design facilitated the comedic delivery, highlighting the importance of the wit.

With the comedy being described as exploring themes of prejudice, tolerance and friendship, it is impossible to disagree. Yet I would argue that the script writing employs critical elements of poststructuralism. The play explores how the collection of contemporary and traditional art is an elitist form, with many people regarding themselves and their actions as superior through this practise. Yet ‘Art’ undermines these pretentious cultural practises by exploring the underlying human emotion, importantly recognising that it is the same for everyone when stripped back. Therefore, by breaking down elitist barriers, the audience are presented with a story of friendship and acceptance.

It is very easy to critique this performance from the ivory tower. As a University student writing for a magazine, it becomes very easy to take a perspective of superiority and easy to have self-righteous faith in avant-garde academic theory. Yet, regardless of and situated behind all the poststructuralist discourse is the underlying message of human nature and exploring the emotion and ego. This is all pulled together with the same comedic tools of a classic sitcom; long pauses and repetition from the actors make sharing a bowl of olives appear to be a power play.

Whilst you are unlikely to find yourself howling in laughter with this performance, the comedy is enough to carry the story. That is a story not of an overpriced painting, but instead of male friendship and human emotion.