Art tears friends apart

(From left) Remesh Panicker, Gerald Chew and Lim Yu-Beng, who star in Art, have known one another for 30 years.
(From left) Remesh Panicker, Gerald Chew and Lim Yu-Beng, who star in Art, have known one another for 30 years.PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

Three actors who have known one another for 30 years star in Yasmin Reza's much-loved play about expensive art and priceless friendship. Art is being restaged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) after 14 years, this time at National Gallery Singapore.

It runs from Thursday to Sept 30, with Remesh Panicker playing, for the third time, Yvan, the bumbling comic in a trio of friends.

Gerald Chew plays Serge, the friend who pays an exorbitant price for an all-white painting and Lim Yu-Beng is Marc, the friend whose disapproval of the purchase threatens to tear the trio apart.

It is the first time that all three actors have worked together in the same play, but Panicker, 56, says: "I'm very confident with the two of them. It's almost as if we've done this before. With no disrespect to the foreign cast, they were people I didn't really know at the time."

In 1998, he acted in Singapore's first staging of Art, with Singapore's Lim Kay Tong and Korean-American actor Randall Duk Kim.

  • BOOK IT/ ART

  • WHERE: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road, City Hall Chamber, City Hall Wing, Level 3

    WHEN: Thursday to Sept 30, 8pm daily, 3pm on weekends

    TICKETS: $48 and $58 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

In 2002, with SRT founder Tony Petito directing, Panicker acted opposite Asian-American players Dominic Moon and Donald Li.

This year's director Danny Yeo, 42, says the chemistry among the cast has been effortless in rehearsals. He says: "Art imitates life. I see it happen in rehearsals."

Chew, 55, has been in Serge's position. Some decades ago, he bought a painting by his then-unknown friend, Jimmy Ong. The painting has since appreciated in value exponentially.

"I've always cherished it because it's a friend's painting and not because the price has gone up 1,000 per cent," he says, declining to name the figure.

Lim, 51, says that he is very similar to Marc, a snarky critic who tells his friends off when he disapproves of them. "I have close friends from army days, school days and in both of these groups, I'm the jerk, the a**hole, the bear-baiter."

SRT's artistic and managing director Gaurav Kripalani says the group wanted to do something at National Gallery Singapore this year. Art was the perfect choice, as it has been 20 years since the English translation was first performed.

Art premiered in French in 1994 and the 1996 English translation by Christopher Hampton became a hit on Broadway and the West End. In 1998, Ivan Heng, the then-artistic director of SRT got the staging rights for Singapore.

A Mandarin version of Art was staged by Nine Years Theatre here three years ago and it won director Nelson Chia a Life Theatre Award for Best Director in 2014.

As the director restaging this work for SRT, Yeo, a bilingual theatre practitioner, says the play's storied history made him hesitant at first. He watched and enjoyed the Nine Years Theatre version.

Then he got over it. "I went ahead and watched a few more versions online. What's wonderful about a well-written play is that you can have your own take and the spirit of the play won't change much," says the director.

Art is a tongue-in-cheek take on the world of contemporary art, where obscene amounts of money change hands for work that some might consider rubbish.

But this is a matter of individual taste, say the actors. In a greater sense, the play is a reminder to live and let live, in an age of increasing tribalism.

Panicker says he is no art connoisseur, his collection consists of two paintings given to him by British-Indian artist Ketna Patel, but he does dislike some contemporary work.

He says: "I may not like this and I may think it's cr*p, but I don't discount the fact that it has to exist.

"Is the play about art? Well, kind of. It's also about allowing people to be who they are."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Art tears friends apart'. Print Edition | Subscribe