first night

Art

Donnachadh O'Conaill enjoys Peculius Stage's latest light-hearted offering.

 

There was a valedictory air in the Assembly Rooms last Saturday, with so many references to last shows and farewells to Durham in the programme notes. All that was missing were the gowns, tearful parents, and Bill Bryson shaking hands with everyone. However, all’s well that ends well. If Art (written by Yasmin Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton) is to prove a last Assembly Rooms hurrah for its major participants, then they have left on a high.
 
This was undoubtedly Oscar Blustin’s best design in his time in Durham. It was not particularly ostentatious, and probably did not demand as much work as other sets we have seen this year, but it was beautifully tailored to the demands of the production. Every scene in Art is intimate, often depicting conflict, which often concerns an entirely white painting. Blustin kept the light very tight on the apron, leaving the rest of the stage in darkness. The floor was painted in bright hues which reflected upwards, allowing for relatively weak washes. The painting stood centre stage at the edge of the light, famed by the dark, at one point of a triangle completed by two leather armchairs facing each other; a setting which at once facilitated and underscored the play’s dramatic structure.
 
The principle source of tension in the play is the escalating antagonism between Serge, the rather precious new owner of a two hundred thousand-pound monochrome, and Marc, his friend and former cultural mentor, who resents this display of avant-garde pretension (and independence of thought) by his former pupil. Ben Salter and Ben Starr, respectively, handled their roles with admirable control, each staking out their character’s territory early on and smoothly taking them up through the gear changes. What was most interesting (and presumably at least in part the result of a conscious decision) was the way that each to a certain degree took on the characteristics of the other: Salter, initially playing off a slightly camp aloofness, was provoked into moral denunciations, while Starr peeled back Marc’s judgemental attitude to reveal a brittle concern for his standing in the eyes of Serge. This suggested both the fraying of their relationship and the degree to which each has influenced the other, something which was also demonstrated in the way that they each appeal to the weaker-willed Yvan, but are also prepared to unite in bullying him.
 
Ollie Lynes had the most difficult task as Yvan, vacillating between his two friends while fretting over his imminent wedding. Serge or Marc always either have the upper hand or have a good idea of how to gain it; Yvan is tossed between them like the volume by Seneca which provides one of their many flashpoints. To Yvan’s passive demeanour must be added his hysterical tendencies, with all the challenges that playing a character without self-control bring. In general, when Lynes had a chance to slowly wind up his character’s neuroses, as in his first long speech to the other two, he was excellent; but he was less good when asked to veer wildly between emotions, particularly since he was never able to do so simply for comic effect. As a result, it was probably inevitable that some of his reactions were overplayed and rang false. However, to his credit he found some equilibrium in Yvan’s closing monologue, achieving a balance of humour and pathos which had at times eluded him.
 
Art is unashamedly a ‘play of ideas’, a phrase which induces a shudder in those of us who admire both plays and ideas but feel that, like Her Majesty’s Government and alumni of the Bullingdon Club, they are perhaps best enjoyed separately. However, Reza’s sure comic touch proved the saving grace; she packaged the ideas in sharp riffs, wielded in tight rhythmic bursts and punctuated with adroitly timed pauses. The characters squabbled over what marks a genuine laugh, the proper tone with which to use the word ‘deconstruction’, and variations on a general theme concerning the difficulty of agreeing over what matters to different people. The comic give and take was good enough to win laughs from lines that, on paper, mightn’t seem that funny (my favourite moment of the night was Salter’s deadpan response to another impassioned outburst from Lynes: ‘Could we try and steer clear of pathos?’).
           
That said, there is one caveat to be mentioned. Art is ultimately a little lightweight, never drawing the characters into existential conflict, and indeed not revealing that much about them which isn’t present in the first few scenes. In particular, the struggle between Serge and Marc feels slightly overinflated, primed by the judicious interjection of back story rather than the excavation of something fundamentally disturbing in their relationship. Matters are not helped by the fact that the characters continually tell us (in direct address to the audience) and each other exactly what is going on. The notion of a play as a running commentary on itself may be appropriately postmodern, but it leaves little room for the delicacies of subtext which might have teased out hidden aspects of the relationships. As a result, I felt that none of the actors was ever forced into any genuinely challenging emotional positions. There is nothing in Art to match the kind of shifting power balances in triangular relationships that marks, for example, much work by Pinter. This is a play that is content to make you laugh, and perhaps think, but never makes you shudder with recognition or feel any remorse at laughing too heartily. I should add that this was not a problem but rather a shortcoming; the limitations imposed by the script are all that prevented this very fine production from being an outstanding one.

13 May 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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