Old Vic Theatre, London – until 18 February 2017
SHOULD AULD ACQUAINTANCE FORGET THEMSELVES…. When Yasmina Reza won an Olivier for best comedy, she joked “I thought I had written a tragedy”. She did both: the French actor-novelist-playwright sees far enough into the cracks in human confidence to illuminate both absurdity and pathos.
Art made her name internationally, and for Matthew Warchus to revive it at the end of a chippy 2016, just when we need to wince, laugh, and reflect on the perils and underlying disagreements in any friendship. Hang out together long enough in empty breeziness, and the odds are there will be dangerous things unsaid. Even if it isn’t about Brexit.
The beauty of this piece is that the unsayable things are well and truly said, by all three characters, as deep chasms open. The trigger is when Serge, a prosperous doctor, spends 100,000 euros on an apparently blank white painting. Except he says it isn’t white, it’s subtler than that, an important work by a contemporary artist. He shows it to Marc, an aero engineer as stubbornly wary of modernism and art-that-needs-explaining as our own dear Michael Gove (very topical, lucky Old Vic!).
Marc laughs and says it is shit, and seems oddly affronted by Serge’s purchase; this opens an unexpected vein of vulnerability in Serge. The third of the old-pals trio, Yvan, tries to mediate between them. Disastrous. In between ripping one another apart they turn on Yvan, whose life is tricky enough already, between professional failure (“Does any man wake up every morning looking forward to selling expandable document wallets”) and a wedding involving warring stepmothers, an affronted mother and a demanding fiancée.
Too much drama is fed by romantic and marital shenanigans: the glory here is that Reza explores the too-little charted territory of commitment and jealousy among adult friends. We gasp when Marc accuses Serge of betraying him with his new art mates – “Never leave your friends unchaperoned!” and cannot but agree with the reported comment of the shrink “Dr Finkelzone” when Yvan tells the affronted pair that he has discussed them in therapy. It’s actually quite profound: “If I’m only who I am because you are who you are, then I’m not who I am”. Fink has a point there.
In a series of encounters a-deux or a-trois the men’s friendship ruptures and reshapes, partly with absurd art-talk about “the resonance of the monochromatic” and partly with personal comments about their attitudes, partners, and assumptions. Serge thinks he is about Art and modernity, Marc pretends to tradition and commonsense, albeit laced with obedience to his unseen Paula’s homeopathic prescriptions. Yvan has decided that life’s just about ‘Marriage, children, stationery, death. That’s it”. We learn that “Read Seneca” is a brilliantly dangerous thing to say to anyone, quite as bad as “You have no sense of humour”. I may try it.
It zings, it ricochets, it sends a shiver, the cast are perfection. Rufus Sewell as Serge has the stillness and the deadly strike of an affronted black mamba; Paul Ritter’s Marc subtly reveals below his bluff man-of-the-world air an edge of controlling megalomania; Tim Key as Yvan, trapped between them both, has real pain and pathos, knowing his chaotic life is a kind of necessary validation to his more successful mates. His cry “I just want to be your FRIEND!” got an audible “aaahh!” from the audience, as serious as a Miller or Tennessee Williams moment.
So good grief, it’s another five-mouse night for Warchus’ Old Vic. For this, on its 20th anniversary, sets up echoes in all of us. Indeed anyone who has had a long friendship blow up in their face might even , on leaving, feel a touch jealous of its sheer articulacy. Theatre is better than life sometimes; often, the kind of lines Reza gives these furious, vulnerable men are the sort that in real life one only mutters to oneself, walking angrily down the street after a Wrong Text…
box office 0844 8717628 to 18 feb http://www.oldvictheatre.com
Principal partner: Royal Bank of Canada