A three-hander originally in French has proved the unlikely ingredients for a global hit that is still going strong after more than 20 years.
Now Art, Yasmina Reza’s Olivier, Tony and Moliere award-winning comedy translated by Christopher Hampton is out on tour again and arrives at the Sheffield Lyceum next week.
Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson play the three long-time friends, Serge, Marc, and Yvan, who fall out about the meaning of art and friendship.
Serge, indulging his penchant for modern art, buys a large, expensive, completely white painting which infuriates Marc. Caught in the middle of the conflict, Yvan tries to act as peacemaker and only makes things worse.
Art is produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers. Pugh co-produced the original English language production which opened in the West End in 1996, starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Ken Stott.
With various different casts it ran for eight years and the play toured the UK for 78 weeks.
It’s nice to be able to turn to the audience and say, ‘This is how I feel’
Both Havers, playing Serge, and Tompkinson who is Yvan are previous participants, but not Lawson..
“I saw the original production and loved it but then when I sat down and read the play after I was asked to do this it knocked me out and I had to do it,” he says.
“I had worked with both Nigel and Steve in TV here and there . Unlike me they had done the play before but not for about eight years. What I did was to arrive on the first day of rehearsals having learned the whole play – much to their alarm.”
The play is a series of dialogues, conversation among all three characters and monologues.
“We all talk to the audience through the play as we go along which is a nice device, to be able to turn to the audience and say, ‘this is how I feel’.
“Because we knew each other a little bit, all that helps. We had a great rapport in rehearsals and it was soon clear we were on the same wavelength and in theatre that is everything. It’s like a tightrope, you have to trust each other.”
“The themes are broad,” he continues. “How do you view art? - but it’s more than that. I look at a painting or a piece of music, a play or something on TV and you have a response. Do you like it or not? Some people will like it, others will hate it.”
Lawson has had to suppress his Scots burr. “Usually I keep things as close to my own voice as I can but with this it was different,” he explains. “Christopher Hampton uses very English syntax and grammar so the rhythm would be harder to get right in a different accent.”
That’s not to say the Frenchness has been lost. “It’s set in Paris and I think when you see it you would question whether three British blokes would react like this.
“Everything they have together in their friendship over 25 years becomes exposed and under threat while at the same time it is terribly funny.”
Friendship is important to the actor. “I still have three friends from school days who I see quite a lot and it’s wonderful to have that.”
This is in contrast to the transitory nature of the acting profession. “Because of the nature of the business you have to make intense connections with people and then everyone splits up at the end and you may not see them again for years,” he reflects.
“When I started out I found this difficult and what happens is you build up a circle of friends within the profession that become very important to you, a kind of back up group.”
Lawson made his name in movies such as Local Hero and and the original Star Wars trilogy and became a familiar face on TV from Bleak House to New Tricks.
He is equally at home in the theatre, winning an Olivier Award as Jim Lancaster in Mr Cinders in the West End and nominated for portraying George in La Cage Aux Folles also in the West End.
He has rarely toured, though, not since starting out in the Seventies when he was in the Portable Theatre Company run by a committee of 12 writers including David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton and Snoo Wilson. “They were unknown then so it was great to be part of that.
“I must say I am really enjoying this. It’s great to go to all these places and play to different audiences. I have never been to Sheffield before and then I am really looking forward to going back to Glasgow where I was born and later trained. So that will bring back a lot of memories.”
Prior to this, he reports, he directed a couple of plays at the Hampstead Theatre. This is not a new departure, of course, since at the same theatre back in 1999 he directed his illustrious nephew, Ewan McGregor, in Little Malcolm and His Struggles Against the Eunuchs, which later transferred to the West End.
As an actor he was in an episode of Death in the Caribbean last year. “You are not going to turn down the chance to go to Guadeloupe,” he laughs. Very different to the climate of the tour so far.
Art is at the Sheffield Lyceum from Monday to Saturday.