12 October 2011

Review: 'Art' by Yasmina Reza (READING Plays? Part 2/2)

The first play I ever read was Art by Yasmina Reza, in the Faber and Faber translation by Christopher Hampton. This choice was inspired by a gentleman with a ginger moustache and a blue velvet jacket saying it was his favourite play, and greatly facilitated by my mother leaving a copy in the bathroom at roughly the same time. That's a true story.

The first page of Art is somewhat encouraging for beginner writers. It contains the line:
Long silence: from both of them, a whole range of wordless emotions.
Well if a play containing that stage direction can be produced in the West End, there's hope for us all, that's all I'm saying.*

But the really striking thing about Art is that, for a multi-award-winning comedy, it doesn't seem very funny at all. Reading it is simply not an entertaining experience.

I found myself thinking about how I would direct the play, how I would act it. A good example is this speech:
Marc To be precise, [our argument] started on the day we were discussing some work of art and you uttered, quite seriously, the word deconstruction.It wasn't so much the word deconstruction that upset me, it was the air of solemnity you imbued it with.
You said, humorlessly, apologetically, without a trace of irony, the word deconstruction, you, my friend.

I'm not known for my sense of humour, in fact I'm known for loathing stand-up comedy with a venom I normally reserve for incompetent showbusiness PRs, but I do recognise jokes when I see them. I can see that the above lines are supposed to be funny, and I can see how I might perform them to make the repetition and amplification of the joke funny, although I did have to brainstorm for quite a long time.

Now imagine a whole play of speeches like the above, and factor in the insider information that the Ludicrously Escalating Posture is a recurring element in the play, as well as its main structural device.

Now avoid reading this play at all costs.

I think these lines rely so much on an actor to bring them alive, that reading them from the page is rather unfair on them. It's a play as much about dramatic technique as it is about the words. In the context of the play script, Reza's LEPs just don't make me laugh.

If Art came to Edinburgh, would I be queuing up to see it? Well, yes, because it's obvious that in the right hands this is a great slice of stagecraft. But unless you intend to study it in depth - preferably after having seen it so that you know there's a joyful light at the end of the tunnel - your bookshelf would be better off without a copy of Art.

So, I read a play, and what did I learn? That as far as comedy plays are concerned (and why would be interested in anything else?) I'm probably better off pursuing a career as a theatre reviewer.


* Alternatively it shows that these small matters of style are much less important than writing tutors would have us believe. Or that copy editors are strange beasts these days, as any element of pretension has been carefully removed from - or was never present in - the rest of the stage directions.

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