After those permanent fixtures The Mousetrap and The Woman In Black, and the revelatory reinvention of An Inspector Calls, Art is now the longest-running "real" play in the West End. Indeed, Yasmina Reza's three-hander has itself come to re-enact one aspect of its subject matter, the valuation of a work not necessarily for its inherent qualities but for the labels attached to it; more than a few of its audience, I suspect, now go to see it not so much because it is art as because it is Art. Its producers and marketers have connived at such commodification by turning each successive cast change into a selling point – return, and return again, until you've collected Roger Allam in all three roles! And did you hear the rumour that the guys from Frasier are going to play in it? And so on.
All of which kerfuffle should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Art is an elegant creation, at once light and substantial, providing by turns comedy, intellectual debate, palpable but not overbearing metaphor and personal compassion, each one in enough measure to satisfy even those who might not be disposed to notice the other elements. Last week its tenth cast notched up its one-thousandth London performance. The show I saw was in fact no. 1004 (you might think that, after two and a half years, the box-office staff would know better than to give out incorrect start times, but alas, on the first attempt I followed their advice and arrived an hour late for this 95-minute play); moreover, on this particular evening Gary Olsen, the best-known name in the current cast, was absent, with the role of Yvan being taken by understudy Andrew Westfield.
Westfield is, however, more than adept as Yvan, l'homme moyen sensuel of the trio, lacking the intellectual rigour of the other two and also the dogmatism which results from it, more concerned with the crises surrounding his imminent wedding than the issue of whether the white-on-white painting for which Serge has just paid 200,000 francs "is" or "is not" any "good". When his colleagues Tom Mannion and Danny Webb applauded him at the curtain call, one sensed more than mere politeness towards an understudy.
Associate director Rachel Kavanaugh – responsible on a day-to-day business for preserving Matthew Warchus's original direction – carefully holds the line whereby no prior decision is made to render any character more or less sympathetic than the others; that choice is left to the audience. The interaction of a given cast, however, influences our verdict. This time out, I find Danny Webb's Serge a little too smug and self-satisfied with his purchase; the subsequent impression is that Serge is not so much outgrowing the mentorship of Tom Mannion's Marc as desperately protesting his autonomy. Mannion's bellowing feels that bit more appealing than Webb's preachier stridency in the climactic confrontation. Nevertheless, the play continues to speak eloquently to questions of friendship, loyalty and principle, viewed merely through the prism of aesthetics; may it yet remain for some time one of the most welcome West End landmarks.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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