Friendship in the frame
French writer Yasmina Reza's play is that most unusual creation: a work that is unashamedly intellectual and also a massive popular hit. First produced in French in 1994, and in this English translation by Christopher Hampton in 1996, the play has won a Tony, an Olivier and a Molière award and has been produced all over the world.
Art is about three old friends who fall out over an abstract painting. Serge (Nigel Havers), a dermatologist who has done well for himself, buys a white canvas with some barely visible white diagonal lines painted by a fashionable artist called Antrios that cost ¤200,000. Twenty years ago, that would have been francs; the figure is now left to imply euro, neatly dodging the problems of inflation.
Marc (Denis Lawson) is disgusted at Serge's purchase. He sees it as a sign that his friend has lost his judgment and has been seduced by pretension. He is also affronted that Serge, who would usually take his guidance from Marc in aesthetic matters, here seems to have made an independent decision. In turn, Serge accuses Marc of having lost his sense of humour. These two alpha-males square up against each other. The third friend, Yvan (Stephen Tompkinson), about to embark on a first, late marriage, tries to broker peace. He is a weaker character bent on avoiding confrontation.
The set is a stripped-down minimalist apartment. The scenes unfold successively at Serge's, Yvan's and Marc's. Nothing changes except for the paintings on the wall, which are: the Antrios canvas; a still-life in Yvan's apartment; and a Dutch-looking landscape in Marc's. This is an Old Vic production, originally directed by Matthew Warchus.
Reza, an actress turned writer, knows how to dissect the foibles of the contemporary middle class. The writing is hilarious, cleverly skewering the mild aggression that often bubbles away under male camaraderie. The shifting power dynamics are captured perfectly as the two dominant males then turn on Yvan, the weakest member of the herd, and attack him. Beneath the constant gags there is a savage satirical impulse.
The show is stolen by Stephen Tompkinson as the low-status Yvan. He delivers the account of his wedding plans and ensuing difficulties with his mother and two stepmothers, bringing an emotional depth to proceedings that is equal parts moving and funny, and provides an emotional nexus amidst the quick-fire dialogue. Nigel Havers is an excellent Serge with a finely judged pomposity. Denis Lawson is a stern, uncompromising Marc. The key to the humour is that they all take themselves absolutely seriously.
Last seen by this critic 20 years ago at the Gate, the play has survived the intervening decades without having dated one bit - even the reference to the then fashionable term 'deconstruction' still feels current. Running to about 90 minutes, this artful comedy will leave you well satisfied.
When a playwright dies, there is always the question of whether or not their career will die with them. John B Keane's work has gone from strength to strength in the 15 years since his death. In contrast, the work of Hugh Leonard, who died in 2009, has slipped from the radar somewhat, despite his many awards. It is impossible to tell how this dramatic afterlife will pan out - like all success in the theatre, it is a mysterious process.
Brian Friel died in 2015. His great play about language and national identity, Translations, began a month-long run last Thursday in the Studio theatre in Washington DC, directed by Belfast-born Matt Torney. Torney has worked and trained in Ireland, including directing the revival of Declan Hughes' Digging For Fire for Rough Magic Theatre Company at Project in 2013. He is currently an associate artistic director at Studio, just a stone's throw from the White House. Friel's play, full of wisdom about colonialism and conflict, might have much to say to the denizens of the American capital.
Translations is also currently in pre-production in London, for a May opening in the 1,160-seat Olivier theatre at the National Theatre. This show stars Ciarán Hinds as the old schoolmaster Hugh and features Colin Morgan (above), Aoife Duffin, Laurence Kinlan and Judith Roddy. It is currently booking heavily, with many shows already sold out.
Friel's Lovers: Winners and Losers opens in May at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Emma Jordan directs, fresh from her win as best director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards for Red, a play about artist Mark Rothko by John Logan. The first half of Lovers, with the doomed teenage sweethearts, is familiar to many, but the full version is rarely seen and will be a welcome event for Friel enthusiasts. The plays of Brian Friel don't seem to be going away any time soon.
BOOK IT NOW
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin March 26 - 31
Isobel Mahon's comedy is about Selma Mae who appears to have a perfect life, beautiful home, children. But soon after she builds a state-of-the-art extension to her home, cracks begin to show. Directed by Caroline FitzGerald
Pavilion, Dún Laoghaire March 30
Theatre and dance family show about a pair of male penguins who try to hatch a rock instead of an egg, based on a true story from Central Park Zoo in New York. A fun show about the ever-changing meaning of identity and family.
3 LOVE IN THE WILD
Viking, Clontarf March 26 - 31
A new play by Lisa Walsh, performed by Anto Seery. The story of Ger who yearns for his lost love Gráinne. She disappeared from his life five years ago, when they had been junkies and lovers together. Directed by Peter Sheridan.