Funny yet serious look at art and relationships

Friends in Art (from left) Lim Yu-Beng, Gerald Chew and Remesh Panicker.
Friends in Art (from left) Lim Yu-Beng, Gerald Chew and Remesh Panicker.PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

REVIEW / THEATRE

ART

Singapore Repertory Theatre

Chamber, National Gallery Singapore/ Last Saturday

Art appreciates on closer acquaintance. That is the point made by this clever play and also the reason why French playwright Yasmin Reza's script remains a hit, 20 years after it was first translated into English by Christopher Hampton.

The premise is funny and licence to snigger at the contemporary art market. Dermatologist Serge (Gerald Chew) buys an all-white painting for an enormous sum of money.

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This confounds his friend Marc (Lim Yu-Beng), who makes no secret of his disdain for the purchase and Serge for making it. Their happy-go-lucky friend Yvan (Remesh Panicker) is caught in the middle when all he wants to do is concentrate on his upcoming wedding. There are deeper tensions at the heart of their quarrel, revealed in the bickering dialogues and reflective monologues nicely spotlit by Petrina Dawn Tan.

Art is about friends, who, as they realise that their lives have gone in different directions over the past 15 years, question what binds them in the present. It is about the deep desire humans have for close connections and the approval of the tribe.

This third staging is performed in the Chamber of the National Gallery Singapore, a grand monument to classic and contemporary art. Another self-referential choice is having the action play out within a melting Dali-esque wooden frame designed by Haziq Surajan. These touches are gold dust on what is already a diamond-solid script, tightly written and needing only three good actors and a white canvas.

Panicker plays Yvan for a third memorable time. The performance is different in tone from his Life Theatre Award-winning turn in 2002, which was directed by SRT founder Tony Petito. That version, opposite Asian-American players Dominic Moon and Donald Li, crackled with the tension between larger-than-life characters.

This staging directed by Danny Yeo is subtler and more poignant. The bonds among the characters played by Lim, Chew and Panicker are obvious in body language and tone of voice. Their estrangement hits harder as the change in Serge forces Marc and even Yvan to confront their lives and how they are perceived by others. These are identities they never imagined for themselves when they were younger and their confusion and pain are vented in their quarrels.

Relationships, like art, may be ruined over time but, like art, can be restored with care and hard work. The process of restoration teaches respect for both - another little lesson in this theatrical gem. Even sniggerers come out thinking twice about contemporary art and appreciating the nuances of this almost-classic play.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Funny yet serious look at art and relationships'. Print Edition | Subscribe