Review by Josiah Hilbig
First premiered in France in 1994, Art is an award-winning play that tells a simple story inspired by a personal experience of the playwright Yasmina Reza: Serge buys a particularly expensive painting—no more than white lines on a white canvas—and the less-than-enthusiastic response to this ‘art’ from his friend Marc, as well as the fence-sitting hesitancy of Yvan, pushes their 15-year friendship to the breaking point.
The stage is set at the 1812 Theatre, as the audience walks in, with a minimalist, semi-abstract set, designed by director Justin Stephens, whose prior work at the theatre has earned him critical acclaim and multiple awards as recently as last year, with The Woman in Black.
The bare-bones set and props mirror the simplicity of the ‘art’ on full display, but it is by no means simple. Three levels of staging sit at odd angles to one another, slanted forward at a striking angle for the visibility of the audience, each one stark white and bordered by intricately detailed frames, as though the action itself plays out upon white, framed canvases.
Three single, lonely seats, including a bubble chair hanging from the ceiling, and a bar cart stocked with liquor are the only other items on display, besides the massive white painting with a handful of white diagonal lines, so perfectly subtle that one is almost amused by the challenge of trying to spot the lines on the otherwise featureless canvas.
Simple, though the set and props may be, they nevertheless highlight the eccentricity of the three characters and establish the tone of the play even before the actors take the stage. The costumes by Jayne Ruddick are similarly simple but functional—serving the respective attitudes of the characters without being distracting or flashy.
The lighting and sound design by Michael Rowe and Justin Stephens respectively and operated by Daniel Koster are appropriately snappy and perfectly choreographed with the direction of each scene, as the action moves in and out of freeze frames and monologues directed to the audience.
At only one instance does the lighting design deviate from the established expectations, leaving a brief moment of unintended ambiguity for the audience. The same could be said of the stage design in conjunction with the direction—what begins as two discrete locations on stage eventually converges into one setting—jarring for a moment but soon forgotten.
As with the direction of the stagecraft elements, the cast of three deliver their lines with impressive dexterity and only the most minor hiccups. Brett Whittingham as Marc and Nigel Leslie as Serge both display an impressive mastery over the dense technical language that often surrounds their discussions of the painting and the deeper subtext behind their arguments. Each one artfully conveys both a sense of distaste and distrust of each others’ opinions and highlights the deep character flaws of their respective characters without making either one too similar to the other or particularly unlikeable to the audience—a credit to the nuance of both the actors’ performances and Stephens’ direction.
Tony Burge as Yvan provides the much-needed comic relief to spill the tension, and his sympathetic, almost child-like helplessness at times is both endearing and hilarious. His ability to rapidly fire off dialogue without the audience losing a single word is to be commended. One particularly awe-inspiring monologue left the audience laughing and applauding in a truly unforgettable show-stopping moment.
All three actors also demonstrate a high degree of stamina, staying on stage throughout the duration of the play with no interval and minimal downtime for any given actor, without any drop in pace or energy.
All in all, the play never feels slow or long, despite the simplicity of the staging and the extensive discussion over a simple painting. The script is tight, and ultimately the story is less concerned with the painting and more the characters’ friendships, making for a dramatic but fulfilling experience.
The warm reception of the small opening-night audience commends the performance, including the enthusiastic laughter throughout the duration, and the delighted gasps at a narrative climax that has to be seen to be believed.
ART is now playing at The 1812 Theatre in Upper Ferntree Gully.
For more information and tickets: https://www.1812theatre.com.au/