There is a moment in the middle of ART's 90-minute run when Remesh Panicker's character Yvan gets up from the sofa to announce his departure. In response, the audience roars in laughter at such a gesture — small but deliberately endearing in the throes of a heated argument between three friends arguing over a piece of art. The art in question's a white painting with white lines, bought for $200,000 by Serge (Gerald Chew; Apprentice, Marco Polo), much to the disbelief and contempt from his friends Marc (Lim Yu-Beng; Another Country, Animal Farm) and Yvan.
Panicker is playing this role for the third time, fitting the role of Yvan like second skin — notably since he bagged ST Life! Theatre Awards' Best Actor award for his previous performance. Written by French playwright Yasmina Reza, ART's English language version was first performed in London in 1996, winning the Tony Award, Laurence Olivier Award and Moliere Award for Best Play. Singapore Repertory Theatre first staged their production in 1998 to sold out audiences, and judging from the turn out last Sunday evening, the play's popularity seems to have spanned generations.
ART sets the stage for three middle-aged friends at different stages in their life, bound by something they can't quite define. Marc's the more domineering of the lot, with Lim enunciating his authoritative figure over Chew and Panicker in sheer pomposity. Chew plays Serge as someone equally self-righteous, having bought a painting for a considerable amount of money. Meanwhile, Panicker's Yvan is the bumbling, comedic relief, often the cushion that softens the blow when Marc and Serge are at loggerheads with each other.
The play puts both art appreciation and friendship into question: How do you value art, and what binds you to a friend? Is your friend still a friend even if he thinks you just invested in a "piece of sh*t"? Is your friendship still worth carrying on when you no longer share similar interests and goals? When do friends reach a point when they outgrow each other?
Reza's writing doesn't miss a beat, pitting three individuals in a game of ping-pong. It's engaging to watch two people in an argument, but when you add another, the dynamic shifts about like riptides, with Lim, Chew and Panicker each deftly managing their serves. ART is housed in the charming City Hall Chamber of the National Gallery Singapore, a venue that reflects the timeless nature of the issues surrounding art and friendship — as valid now as they were when the production first ran almost two decades ago.
ART is running from now till 30 September. Book tickets on Sistic here.