This controversial art work consists of white stripes on a white background and it cost Serge (Tom Courtenay) 200,000 francs. It also very nearly costs him the friendship of Albert Finney's Marc (a bullish anti-modernist who has to pop pills to cope with his chum's apparent defection to smart- set values) and of Ken Stott's Yvan (a lower-status pal of both who tries to be the umpire and winds up the punchbag). Montherlant's aphorism that "Happiness writes white" would look ironic in the circumstances, if the abstruse colour-scheme of the picture were not itself one of the bones of contention.
The stage looks set, then, for a spry intellectual divertissement that intertwines an examination of male friendships with an inspection of attitudes to modern art. But is that what you get? Well, I laughed quite a lot and lapped up the lovely comic teamwork of the three stars in Matthew Warchus's chicly droll and minimalist-looking production. With that air of offended feyness that he's a dab hand at projecting, Courtenay is perfectly cast as Serge, prissily carting his picture on and off according to how worthy he feels the other two are, at that particular moment, to view it. The whiff of a loud, prosperous, yet paradoxically sensitive bookie that Finney can bring to a role is almost as strong an asset. Best of all, though, is Ken Stott, theoretically the Carreras in this "Three Tenors" concert, who does some wonderful work as the underdog whose periodically virtuosic bark is just as weak as his bite.
If only the play could live up to the performances: but it's meringue masquerading as piquantly sauced meat. Its insight into the nature of male friendship seems to be compromised from the outset by the extreme difficulty one experiences trying to imagine this oddly assorted trio in any plausible social situation outside the play. The shared past that surfaces all the time in the present tense of a friendship doesn't do so at all convincingly here. Serge, for example, is able to fork out as much on a painting as Yvan, a salesman-nobody, earns in a year. Marc, an aeronautical engineer, has somehow been the "mentor" of Serge. Like the idea that the names of witnesses at a wedding have to appear on the invitation (the shaky basis of one of the play's better jokes), the friendship feels like a convenient fiction.
It takes Marc a fair while to twig that there may be a parallel between what he thinks of Serge's painting and what Serge really thinks of Marc's wife. But the atmosphere of the play is antiseptically sexless rather than latently bisexual or, as they say these days, homosocial. The infrequency with which women are mentioned (apart from when Yvan is bewailing his forthcoming disastrous nuptials) is presumably intended as a damning comment on men. David Mamet need not, however, fear any competition from this female author's dramatisation of such matters. Having the friends come to blows over a painting (a sort of blank Rorschach blot that can't answer back) rather than a woman sheds less light on cockeyed male value-systems than it does on boulevard audiences who clearly welcome the illusion that quick, shallow references to aesthetic issues ("Deconstruction", the value or otherwise of being "of your time" etc) are a fun, efficient way of toning up the mind. I liked Christopher Hampton's translation but thought that a more accurate title would be "Charm" or even "Flattery".
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