Fragile friendship torn asunder by abstract art.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Liang Chi-Ming)||10|
|Script (Yasmina Reza)||9|
|Performance (Pu Hsueh-Liang, Chu Chung Heng and Tseng Kuo Chen)||10|
|Stage Design (Nieh Kuang-Yen)||8|
|Costume Design (Chin Ping-Ping)||8|
|Lighting Design (Tsao An-Huei)||8|
|Music Composition/Arrangement (Chen Kao-Hwa)||8|
No matter how many times we’ve watched ART, it feels as if there’s still more to unpack and uncover in Yasmina Reza’s richly layered script. Directed by Liang Chi-Ming and produced by Taiwan’s Godot Theatre Company, ART premiered at the Esplanade’s 2023 Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts in a new Mandarin translation, and once again brings to the stage its now classic take of three men whose 20-year friendship threatens to collapse when one of them purchases a seemingly blank canvas for a ludicrous price.
The three men couldn’t be more different – Zhao Zhongjie (Chu Chung Heng), the purchaser of the art piece in question, seems to want to enter the upper echelons of society by participating in the act of purchasing art, and through the work, becomes increasingly pretentious and lofty. Realist Sun Liangqun (Pu Hsueh-Liang) scoffs at the idea and sees the work as trash, and refuses to see things from any other perspective, convinced that Zhao has sacrificed his values. Finally, Qian Guoming (Tseng Kuo Chen) is the long-suffering peacemaker of the three, who attempts to appease both of them, all while dealing with his own messy wedding.
As with other Godot Theatre works, there is a sense of class and professionalism to the entire production from the moment it begins, with a sleek opening credits video sequence, before a red, green and yellow panel separates to reveal a simple set (by Nieh Kuang-Yen), comprising only of three white pillars and limited furniture and props to represent the mens’ living spaces. The red, yellow and green is a recurring motif, with each character assigned a colour, while the props also correspond to them, perhaps to represent each character’s insistence on sticking to their own preferences and points of view.
ART is one of those works that’s both lengthy and heavy on dialogue, and it is to the credit of director Liang Chi-Ming that he teases out his cast’s comedic chops, playing it almost like a sitcom as the men trade jibes and snide remarks, at times reaching almost absurd levels of logic and pettiness. This lends the script a far lighter touch than some other productions, and ensures that the humour lands, garnering plenty of laughs from the almost full-capacity theatre.
That is not to say that ART isn’t without its share of drama. In fact, it is precisely because of how strong the humour comes through, that the more emotional moments, by contrast, stand out even more. Behind the arguments, one understands that each of these men genuinely care for each other and put so much emotion into these fights because they fear the loss of their friendship as they know it. All three cast members are friends offstage as well, the chemistry plain to see as they hit every beat, nailing the timing of retorts and believably reacting and pondering as each of them airs their grievances and defends himself.
The bitterness between Pu Hsueh-Liang and Chu Chung Heng is especially biting, with their characters’ personal attacks on their romantic partners, lack of taste, and calling each other out on no longer being a recognizable version of themselves. One feels the palpable tension in the air as they stand several feet apart, their gaze shooting daggers at each other, almost always aware of where each other is onstage at any point.
As the hapless Qian, Tseng Kuo Chen steals the show by so often becoming the source of humour, offering much-needed levity to the seriousness of Zhao and Sun’s dispute. Tseng does especially well with his physical humour, willing to crawl about on all fours just to search for a marker cap, or his voice rising into a mournful cry for help when he delivers a lengthy monologue about wedding invitations causing a rift between him and his fiancee. As much as he can be sycophantic in trying to appease both parties, like Qian, we find ourselves wanting all three to make amends, because we know how much they mean to each other, afraid that they would ultimately be abandoned and alone with the loss of their friends.
Like the supposedly valuable all white painting by fictitious artist ‘Antrois’, ART itself may seem like a simple argument between three men, but the more you pay attention, the more subtle details begin to emerge that you may never have noticed before. Beyond the obvious question of what the value of art is, ART really is more about self-perception, as one begins to psychoanalyse these men and realise how fragile they are. Whether discussing esoteric Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, or taking umbrage at supposed attacks on their class, ART displays the blindness we subject ourselves to when we stubbornly refuse to change our ways of seeing, a decision that only results in further inadvertently bruising egos and inadvertently mistreating others from defensive behaviour.
In its final showdown, the men exhausted from going at each other for so long, there is an uneasy truce brought about when Zhao finally relents, allowing his ego to step aside and seemingly sacrifices his painting for the sake of their relationship, before all three make amends, taking back words and beginning a tentative new phase of their friendship. It is a grand gesture that symbolises how important their friendship is, yet a final twist suggests that there will always be a side to them that they keep to themselves, agreeing to disagree that they will never fully accept all aspects of each other’s personality, and that perhaps, that is ok.
As they each break the fourth wall in a final series of monologues, the controversial painting is left there to hang for all to see, as we gaze upon it and imagine for ourselves what it could mean. One could easily just call it a worthless piece of junk, as easily as one could strain to find the hidden streaks of white paint on white canvas, a man in white straining against a blizzard. There are no right answers in the world of art, only interpretations, and what you choose to say or keep private. And what’s more important than being right sometimes, is learning who to keep by your side, come rain or come shine or come snow.
Photo Credit: Jack Yam, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay
ART played from 27th to 29th January 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre. More information 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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