There’s a little ritual that Denis Lawson has initiated alongside his fellow cast members of the current tour of Yasmina Reza’s play, Art, which arrives in Glasgow next week.
“Within three minutes of the curtain coming down I’ve made three vodka martinis,” says a jaunty-sounding Lawson. “Then we sit down and have a little chat.”
The image of Lawson, Nigel Havers and Stephen Tompkinson – all gentleman thespians of a certain vintage - gathering together for post-show libations in such a civilised fashion says much about the calibre of Reza’s play, as well as the trickle-down sense of bonhomie it has inspired among its cast.
“We do get on extraordinary well,” purrs the now 70-year-old Lawson in a still discernible Perthshire burr. “Which is lucky. We’ve all known each other a little bit from working together over the years, but as soon as we got into the rehearsal room, we all just clicked straight away.”
Given that Art is all about the strains and pains of friendship, the chemistry which appear to exist between such a trio of screen-friendly faces is indeed a blessing. The play helps.
Art first appeared in Paris in 1994, just as the late twentieth century rise of conceptual art was causing a fresh stir, primarily by way of a new wave of contemporary artists who made the headlines and swelled the increasingly lucrative art market. The play was first seen in London in Christopher Hampton’s English translation two years later in a production co-produced by Sean Connery, and which ran for eight years, picking up an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 1997.
The trio onstage throughout the play’s 90-minute duration – Serge, Marc and Yvan – have their friendship of 15 years threatened when Serge splashes out a not so small fortune on a painting. Rather than a common-or-garden still life or portrait, Serge has embraced the shock of the new by way of a white-painted canvas with just a few white lines of detail added in. While Serge enjoys his chic and forward-thinking investment, Lawson’s character Marc is a cynic who furiously dismisses both the painting and the purchase. Poor Yvan, meanwhile, attempts to appease these parallel extremes of thought by agreeing with both of his friends.
“Marc thinks all this is appalling,” says Lawson. “He’s a certain kind of intellectual that’s held in very high regard in France. Or at least he sees himself as an intellectual, anyway. Whether he is or not is a different matter. He’s also quite highly strung and neurotic, so when his friend Serge buys this white painting, he’s absolutely horrified. Then poor Yvan, who Steve plays, and who is pretty hapless, gets caught in the middle of this horrendous argument.
“It’s quite explosive, and even though the play is quite short, it’s very intense for us to do. You can’t let it go for a second, and that’s very satisfying to do. As a play, it’s more about friendship than art, and male friendship in particular. It’s also about how particular actions address the issue of how we see things, and see objects. You can like one painting, and another you don’t, and from that it becomes about a much wider perception of things. I first saw it twenty-odd years ago when Ken Stott was in it, but when I sat down to read it for this production, it was even clearer that it’s such a fabulous piece of work.”
Art marks Lawson’s first appearance on a Glasgow stage for what he reckons might well be forty years. That was at the old Close Theatre Club, the hotbed of 1960s studio-based experimentalism that formed part of the Citizens Theatre before being destroyed by fire in 1973. Lawson also appeared at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, and at the Roundhouse and Almost Free theatres in London, while early TV roles saw him cast in the likes of Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Onstage, in 1983, Lawson played the title role in a revival of 1920s musical Mr Cinders for a mammoth 527 performances.
“That was big for me,” says Lawson. “I’ve done a lot of musical theatre, but I equate Mr Cinders a lot with why I became an actor.”
By that time, Lawson had appeared in all three original Star Wars films, a franchise his nephew Ewan McGregor, who he directed in a TV film version of In McEwan’s short story, Solid Geometry, later joined. Also in 1983, Lawson added his louche presence to Bill Forsyth’s film, Local Hero.
“That was probably the most enjoyable job I ever had,” says Lawson, who expresses delight at the recent announcement by the Lyceum in Edinburgh that a stage version will be produced there. “It seems to have this extraordinary life to it.”
Just prior to Art, Lawson directed Roy Williams’ play, The Firm, at Hampstead Theatre.
“It’s about black gang culture in South London,” Lawson explains, “and when I was asked to do it, I said, guys, I’m a white, middle class Scottish guy, I’m not sure I’m the right person to do this. It was another play about friendship among an older generation.”
One of Lawson’s most recent small-screen appearances was in A Quiet Night In, a 2014 episode of Inside No. 9, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s compendium of dark-edged playlets for which the word sit-com would be a far too simplistic epithet. A Quiet Night In was an ingeniously choreographed and dialogue-free affair, in which two cat burglars attempt to steal an expensive painting from the luxury home of millionaire Gerald, played by Lawson.
As the painting is passed around, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the masterpiece at the centre of Art. This in turn recalls American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting, which caused a similar stir in 1951. As did pop artist Richard Hamilton’s cover for the 1968 double album by the Beatles that became known as the White Album.
“I rather like contemporary art,” Lawson says with something akin to mischief in his voice. “I quite like Jackson Pollock, and have a real gut reaction to it, so it does whatever it does to me.”
Jack the Dripper’s wildly physical abstract expressionist paintings appeal to Lawson almost as much as the work of Gerhard Richter, the self-styled German surrealist, whose fusion of photography and painting has seen him exhibit all over the world. This included a show at Tate Modern in 2011. Richter is also responsible for a series of abstract works, including a 1960s series of grey monochromes that again sound not unlike the painting bought by Serge in Art.
“When I saw Richter’s work it blew me away,” says Lawson. “He does all this wonderful photo-realism, but drags it through a gauze of abstraction.”
Lawson may be a fan of Richter, but what, one wonders, might Marc make of it all?
“Marc might quite like his photo-realism,” says Lawson, “but he’d hate the abstracts, or what he saw as being abstract. But doing this play reminds me of doing The Man in the Iron Mask, which was one of the first movies I ever did.”
Lawson is referring to Mike Newell’s 1977 version of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, which starred Richard Chamberlain, Patrick McGoohan and Jenny Agutter.
“Ralph Richardson was in it as well, and as a young actor, I’d seen him onstage with John Gielgud in Harold Pinter’s play, No Man’s Land. I said to Ralph Richardson that I loved it, but that I didn’t know what it meant. In his old actor’s voice, he said, well, it’s like a vase. You look at the vase, and you either like the vase, or you don’t like the vase, and that’s like Art.”
Art, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, April 9-14.
The Herald, April 5th 2018