Over this first weekend of the Esplanade’s 2023 Huayi- Chinese Festival of Arts, the ongoing theme seems to be friendship, with headliner shows Two men, ten years later and Godot Theatre Company’s ART both dealing with the difficulties and nuances of navigating long-term friendships. And it makes perfect sense too – after all, in a world fraught with conflict, we need more friendships built on strong foundations than ever.
Adapted to Mandarin from French playwright Yasmina Reza’s script, ART in particular is an interesting show in addressing those concerns, as three men who’ve been friends for twenty years see their friendship falling apart when one of them purchases a piece of modern art for a ridiculous price. The incident leads to heretofore undisclosed resentments, annoyances and revelations that threatens to destroy their fragile friendship once and for all.
ART also happens to star titans of the Taiwanese entertainment scene, Pu Hsueh-Liang, Chu Chung Heng and Tseng Kuo Chen, all three of whom are close friends themselves, along with director Liang Chi-Ming, who has worked with them on multiple projects over the years. Speaking to Chi-Ming, we found out more about how the company has been coping over the pandemic, and the long-awaited return to Singapore.
“Even though the pandemic prevented us from performing shows, especially from 2021-2022, theatre companies remained resilient, and continued to express our creativity by writing scripts and making plans, all anticipating the day shows would open,” says Chi-Ming. “Now with things finally opening up again, these shows we’ve been preparing for are finally coming to light, and we can present them to more audiences. Like how we’ll soon be going to Xiamen to do a work we’ve been commissioned to do, with preparations already well under way.”
ART is proof that theatre is back in Taiwan – it arrived in Singapore this week after a successful six-city run back home, including major venues in Taipei, Taizhong, Kaohsiung, and Taoyuan. “ART may have been written in the 1990s, but it’s become such a classic that’s still resonant even today. Translated and produced around the world, its message still rings through, as it presents this small cast of three, each with their different personalities and perspectives, to explore friendship and art,” says Chi-Ming. “As audiences, we can see ourselves represented onstage, and we wonder if we would react the same way if faced with similar circumstances. We watch as their friendship grows and fluctuates, and watch them criticise each other, and raise important questions about the way we see art and the world.”
Of course, it helps that all four of them are actual friends in real life, which makes ART feel all the more real. “Chu Chung Heng and Tseng Kuo Chen have known each other for over 40 years now, while I’ve directed Pu Hsueh-Liang in several productions, including Tuesdays with Morrie, or the rock musical Kiss Me Nana,” says Chi-Ming. “Every show I do is actually a process of making new friends, and even when reading the script, I’ll always think about whether there are new collaborators I can work with to bring the production with life.”
In a way, ART is also perfect for Chi-Ming, who is the kind of director who isn’t content to stay stagnant, and continues to expand his frame of mind, exploring new places and cultures every opportunity he can. “I love travelling, and I’ve been to maybe 90 different countries now. I try to immerse myself in the culture, from the art to the music, and there’s always something new and unique to learn,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a scientist, taking all that I’ve learnt and experienced and putting it all together in a lab, and seeing what arises from it. Like especially in the original musicals we stage, we’ve done everything from a rock to jazz musical, to huangmei opera and even techno musicals.”
Chi-Ming also feels happy to be returning to Singapore again, citing the Esplanade as one of his favourite venues. “I’ve probably worked across maybe 100 theatre venues, and the Esplanade remains one of my favourites because it’s just such a good space. From a technical perspective, the acoustics are great, and we rarely have to make any major adjustments when we bump in, and when the actors speak, even though it’s just three of them onstage, no matter where you are, they feel close to you,” says Chi-Ming. “The teams supporting our work have also been wonderful, and I remember how the last time we were here, the surtitlist left an impression on me. I didn’t have time to read through all the surtitles before the show began, but when I was sitting there watching it, I looked at the surtitles from time to time and noticed a few local flavours and references in there, and appreciated it. Even the backstage crew makes the space behind feel like a five star hotel at times even. and our cast love working in Singapore as well, because of how professional everything is.”
“In fact, this is something that extends to all Singaporeans. I remember many years ago, when I came to Singapore, I wanted to play golf, but my friends were all not in Singapore. So one of them linked me up with his friend who was in Singapore to accompany me, and we ended up exchanging so many emails where he had a whole list of things to confirm with me, from how much handicap I needed per hole and all my preferences. I was so surprised, but it was impressive!”
Ultimately, Chi-Ming hopes that the arts continues to thrive in a post-pandemic world, and that the next generation continues to let it soar when they become the ones to inherit the scene. “We try to give students and newcomers as much opportunity to learn and experience as possible. And while the craft and skill is important, it’s really the attitude that’s the most important aspect. I have assistant directors who followed me here, and I tell them that the director is not the be all and end all, but simply someone to guide the cast,” says Chi-Ming. “What they should be doing is not to mimic me, but to think about how they can use their own abilities to create the effect and outcome they want, and I offer them my thoughts before they try again. Directors should have their own point of view and thoughts to create new exciting work.”
For now, if you have a chance, get a ticket to catch ART at the Esplanade Theatre this weekend, and watch as philosophy, artistry, society and the way we live gets duked out onstage by these three friends, both onstage and in real life.
Photo Credit: Godot Theatre Company
ART plays from 27th to 29th January 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets available here
Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts 2023 runs from 27th January to 5th February 2023 at the Esplanade. Full programme and lineup available here
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