By Adnan Murad
Premiered in Paris in 1994, Art is the creation of French playwright Yasmina Reza.
Reza’s play, originally centring around three male protagonists, was first performed in Karachi with an all-female cast on Feb 10, 2018 at the Alliance Française.
The story centres around and within the apartments of three women: Serge (Iman Shahid), Marc (Mariam Saleem) and Yvan (Zainab Ahmed).
Serge purchases an exorbitantly priced all-white painting; as a result, her old friend Marc is greatly dismayed, while their mutual friend Yvan tries to pacify the situation by swinging both ways in her opinions.
On the surface, this situation may seem to open up all kinds of questions about the inflation of the art market; however, underneath its surface, it is an out-and-out examination of a long-time friendship, which is damaged as much by speech as by actions.
Over its 90-minute runtime, the changing dynamics of this play make us rationally analyse Marc’s rage from different perspectives. On one hand, we realise that the absurdity of the painting’s price may have pressed Marc to behave the way she did; on the other hand, we are forced to believe—towards the last few sections of the play—that Marc’s reassessment of her relationship with Serge made her drew parallels between the blank canvas and the apparent desolation of their friendship, leading to the events that tested their bond’s strength.
Serge’s character suggests that she is a woman who readily embraces everything new and is consciously taking steps to be more evolved.
With flashes of a fastidious poseur, Shahid, as Serge, gives a performance that offers much to chew on. The way she studies and scrutinises the canvas in the manner of an art expert is calibrated to perfection. Her each movement is a testament to the hard work she has put in to prepare for this role.
On the contrary, Saleem’s Marc is a cynic and a classicist, who is hard-nosed and takes no time in calling Serge’s valuable possession “a white piece of shit”.
Marc is difficult to understand, but she is also the most interesting character with a twisted character arc, which is brought to life by Saleem, who lives the character and infuses life into its eccentricities. Anything that she does is a work of complex purity that is taken to glorious heights towards the end as she slyly hints how she was once enthralled by Serge’s formidable elegance and hauteur.
Yvan, played by Ahmed, acts as a bridge between the two main characters for most of the time; however, in the final 30 minutes, we realise how broken she is, which contradicts the initial description of Yvan provided by Marc.
Yvan—treated as an ally in the beginning and as a punchbag in the final confrontational segment—turns out to be a complete neurotic, who is herself entangled in the complications of her impending marriage. Ahmed makes Yvan’s agony palpable, concern for mending Marc and Serge’s relationship believable and enactment of a true friend laudable. This is a significant victory for the actor.
If the chemistry between the actors is how we evaluate the worth of a play, it is possible that the unusually remarkable dynamics of Shahid and Saleem’s bittersweet camaraderie in Art could earn director Tughral Turab Ali the highest honours. The rising tension between leading women is the kind of authentic, intimate work that feels several steps above acting.
Overall, Art starts off as a genuinely endearing play when the merits and demerits of the white canvas are under discussion and takes a more personal turn as the usual banter leads to violent eruption and emotional outbursts. This is a classical absurdist device, also dramatised by Harold Pinter in The Caretaker, where we learnt that when a family squabbles over a sandwich, it is not just about the sandwich at all; therefore, Art, for me, is an admirably progressive story, which tests the limits of a friendship, and also explores how important it is to play, sometimes, the accepted rules of the game, with a skilful hypocrisy to keep functioning as social beings.
The play also puts forward an important question: is it possible to enjoy—or sustain—a relationship with someone whose views on art, books, movies or theatre are completely different from our own? Quite honestly, Art succeeds in answering this question by sensitively depicting how much truth and honesty human beings can stand. It begins with Marc giving her views in an uncompromisingly forthright way about the white canvas and culminates with Serge telling a necessary lie to save their crumbling relationship; and for me, this is the real ‘Art’.