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Yvan (Phil Bowen) examines the £200,000 white canvas. Photograph: Alan Jones
Phil Bowen, Anthony Frost, Bob Devereux. Photograph: Alan Jones
Yasmina Reza's Art

In 2011, the South West Academy's annual Drecki Lecture took the form of a performance reading of Yasmina Reza's hilariously funny, award-winning comedy play, 'ART'. And what more apposite a stage setting for this performance than the premises of auctioneers Bearnes, Hampton and Littlewood of Exeter, complete with their own paintings and artefacts, who generously hosted the evening.

'ART', a play fundamentally about the merits of modern painting and the vagaries of friendship, was performed by the three renowned Cornish artists, Anthony Frost, Bob Devereux and Phil Bowen, themselves long-standing friends. The obvious rapport behind their stage characters gave an extraordinary energy and dynamism to the production completely captivating the audience for the full ninety minutes.

The play commences with Serge (Anthony Frost) showing Marc, his close friend and a rather self-opinionated art buff (Bob Devereux) his newly purchased painting - a largish canvas painted white with 'three fine, white diagonal scars'. Both friends are obviously agitated by each other's response to the painting, instigating the eternal question of 'What Is Art'?

Marc, for his part, cannot believe that his friend, whom he has mentored for fifteen years, has been foolish enough to pay £200,000 for a 'piece of worthless white s....!'. He is also filled with some 'indefinable unease', doubtless because his old chum seems to have developed a newfound independence. Both men are quick to enlist the advice of mutual friend Yvan (Phil Bowen) in the hope that he will support their respective viewpoints, but Yvan, a rather insecure character, is concerned less with the virtues of the painting and more with keeping the peace between his two best pals.

His endeavours at peace-making fail miserably, and instead he becomes their scapegoat, at one point receiving a clout from Marc, likely intended for Serge, for his efforts. Yvan's initial ambivalent nature turns into self-induced hysteria as he rages, almost without drawing breath, about his rivalling relatives and the problems facing his forthcoming wedding preparations. Again it seems he is powerless to do anything constructive.

As the furious row continues, the question is whether their friendship will 'de-construct' beyond repair, while the eternal question of 'What is Art' remains ever-present as we, the audience, are fully aware of the white canvas which has been left on stage throughout.

The intelligent wit and humour is never lost for a second by these three gifted performers, whether in the fast, lively delivered dialogue or the moments of reflection and although ART has been translated into thirty-five languages and staged from London to New York, this recent performance, presented so vigorously and dynamically by these three professional Cornish artists, surely compares with the best. The SWAc audience certainly thought so, as the hoots of laughter and lengthy, exuberant applause testified.

Phil Bowen's latest book of poetry, 'Nowhere's Far' is out now from www.saltpublishing.com.

Our thanks to Alison Summerfield for permission to reproduce this article.
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