C’mon fellows this is ‘Art’ or is it?

By Smriti Daniel

It’s the end of the day and A.S.H. Smyth, Jehan Mendis and Shanaka Amarasinghe look exhausted. We’re seated outdoors around a little table at Summer Garden opposite Vihara Mahadevi Park and the lampshade on our table throws a green circle of light. No blood or bruises are illuminated – clearly the in-fighting is being kept well under wraps.

Shanaka: “I think we surprised people when we went nearly six weeks without anybody slitting the other’s throat. We did come close on a few occasions but...”

Adam: “...but there was nothing really sharp in the play.”

But that would be discounting the dialogue. This July, the trio intend to stage Yazmina Reza’s ‘Art’ under the auspices of the Broken Leg Theatre Company. Critically acclaimed, ‘Art’ won several awards in 1998, including the Tony Award for ‘Best Play’. (They’ve decided to do the directing themselves.)
In the play, three friends, Marc, Serge and Yvan begin to argue about a piece of modern art that Serge has just purchased, that Marc loathes and Yvan doesn’t have an opinion about. Soon the three are arguing about things besides the painting - be it their friend’s choice of woman or career.

At the interview, things begin to get entertaining when Jehan suddenly decides to come to the defence of white paintings the world over. “I think there is actually something to it,” he declares. Adam will have none of it (“That’s it, I’m leaving.”) Jehan continues: “If you don’t know anything about it you only see the white canvas, but what the painter is really trying to do is deconstruct the process of painting. (Rude noises from the others) It’s an analysis of how different textures and different lights in the same room will create different reflections on the canvas.......his subject is actually painting.” In the play, Serge pays 200,000 Francs for just such a painting.

For Jehan, the character of Serge has been an easy one to slip into. Adam has wanted to play Marc ever since he saw the play staged sometime in 1997. “It’s the unrelenting cynic. As Shanaka delicately tried to point out, it was a role that I thought I was playing either way, but it requires a little more acting than I thought.” For his part, Shanaka has on a t-shirt that proclaims ‘I’m Yvan’ – I would have actually expected it to read ‘I’m Serge’, instead. By his own admission, Shanaka usually finds himself in roles where he is the most opinionated character on stage, so to be playing the spineless Yvan is actually something of a challenge.

Adam: “Marc’s problem is two fold...the first problem is that he thinks the painting is absurd. But that is the minor problem. The major problem is that if he is such great mates with Serge, how come Serge has bought something that annoys him on such a visceral level. And why can’t Serge not understand?” Shanaka describes himself as the one caught in the middle. I ask him - does he not have an opinion? Shanaka: “No...” (Adam: “Neither does Yvan.”) Refusing to be derailed, Shanaka continues: “No, my opinions are generally shaped by wanting to please one of these two guys and it doesn’t help that their opinions are completely divergent. So when they’re both in the same room, I have a problem.”

Shanaka Amarasinghe, Jehan Mendis and A.S.H. Smyth as the three friends in the play. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

From what they tell me, it’s pretty amazing that their characters are friends at all. Shanaka: “Exactly. The ‘Art’ is always in inverted commas as Adam pointed out and I think friendship is an ‘Art’ as well.” (Jehan applauds loudly. “Very good, it’s a sound bite!”) Still, ‘Art’ has been criticised as being one dimensional. “It may be one dimensional but it’s very deliberately so,” says Shanaka. “I think what annoys the critics is that the characters are so suburban and ordinary... The one other play that I’ve seen of hers (Reza’s), and the couple of others I’ve read are exactly like this. So yeah, critics have the same point to make every time and it’s a fair point, but they’re all about people saying stupid things under provocation and then being too stubborn to take it back or discovering that the argument has its own momentum and that it has now morphed onto the next sub-topic and you can’t get it back.”

There are hints that all the arguing is done in France, but the three consider its subject itself the most revealing. They know it’s French because “I don’t think anyone else on the planet would be having this argument,” says Jehan. Adam: “This is my curiosity about the French audience. It’s hard to pick up on youtube so we’re not quite sure. In the English Theatre when the curtain goes up, the light comes on and 30 seconds into the play everybody sees the white canvas. They just laugh openly, the whole theatre. I’m not sure that happens in France. I think in France, people go, ‘Oh..that’s interesting’.”
The playwright herself apparently didn’t intend the play to be funny. Accompanying the translator Christopher Hampton to the English premiere of ‘Art’ she was appalled by the gales of laughter from the audience. Turning to him, she asked accusingly, ‘What did you do to my play?’ “It was only a little ungrateful,” says Adam grinning.

‘Art’ will be staged in the British Council auditorium from July 1-3, from 7.45 p.m. onwards. The production is presented by Broken Leg Theatre Company in partnership with the British Council and sponsored by Lankem and produced by Nisrin Jafferjee, while Thushara Hettihamu is doing the lights.
The Sunday Times is the print media sponsor. Tickets are available at Barefoot.

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