By Alfian Sa’at
(1395 words, 10-minute read)
In the middle of the black box studio of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre there is a white rectangle placed on the floor. Above it, a rectangular box is mounted, casting fluorescent light diffused through a white screen. At the periphery of the studio, there are rows of slender pillars attached with fluorescent tubes.
The performance begins. Five actors are on stage, seated in a row. The lights overhead are segmented into five, so each one is lit in turn. Their costumes are in chic shades of white, black, grey, navy and olive. The actresses are smouldering and leggy; the actors have killer cheekbones. They all look as if they are on the set of a meticulously art-directed photo shoot rather than on a stage.
The play is Co/exist by FullFat Theatre, and it is performed in English. Thai surtitles are projected on the front of the overhead box. This is atypical – writer and director Nophand Boonyai grew up in London – but is an example of the diversity of the Thai theatre landscape. Later, at the 2017 International Association of Theatre Critics-Thailand Awards, the play would win Best Play and Best Original Script.
Co/exist is a work that draws much of its inspiration from cinema. There are three narrative strands that are braided together at the end of the play. In one of these, a lawyer (Nophand Boonyai) interrogates a celebrity (Grisana Punpeng), over a particularly sordid case involving gay underage sex and suicide. Bathed in clinical light, the two conduct verbal jousts in the convention of a Hollywood crime/courtroom thriller.
In another, a movie star (Peter Knight) finds himself on a movie set with an extra (Punika Rangchaya) who also happens to be an obsessed fan. In the third one, two sisters (Pattarasuda Anuman Rajadhon and Sasithorn Panichnok) re-enact scenes from their childhood and their past, demanding re-takes whenever a scene was executed unsatisfactorily. All the scenes are supported by an ensemble that plays additional supporting roles and executes set changes.
There are many themes thrown up in the play: the unreliability of memory, the repetition without resolution that is characteristic of trauma, the gulf between a curated public image and the private self, the ways acting is used as a shield (for self-preservation) or a weapon (to gaslight others).
The actors are brisk, precise, pitching their performances in that zone between unflappable cool and seething passion. Particularly noteworthy are Knight (delightfully self-ironising, with his hangdog grimace) and Punika (with her crowd-tickling comic chops).
However, I was a little bothered by the play’s sense of placelessness, and wondered if its use of English and its sleek, urban-chic aesthetics put its cosmopolitan characters in a kind of globalised nowhereland. I recognised that familiar tension between aspirational internationalism and bland genericism.
Also, dramatic stakes are unevenly distributed. The audience will tend to be more invested in the story of the lawyer and celebrity (the threat of prison is real) and the movie star and the extra (the threat of crazed fandom is no less real). In contrast, the two sisters’ angsting comes across as neurotic, even petty. This particular story, and its unfortunate placement within a gendered milieu, co-exists uneasily with the other two more bracing, muscular and sharply-observed stories.
Another production that ran around the same time was Private Conversation: A Farewell to Love of Siam, presented by Apropos. Incidentally, it also deals with filmic themes, but with a focus on metacinema. Starring former teen heartthrob Witwisit ‘Pchy’ Hiranyawongkul, the play is a bittersweet confessional on the perks and curses of stardom.
A decade ago, the world was introduced to Love Of Siam, a coming-of-age Thai film that starred Pchy as Mew and Mario Maurer as Tong, two teenage boys who discover romantic feelings for each other. As one of the rare Asian gay films which did not involve a lead dying of suicide (see: Bishonen) or a tragic accident (see: Lan Yu), it has assured itself a place in the canon of BL (Boys’ Love) movies.
Private Conversation is staged in a classroom of an abandoned school in Ekkamai, repurposed as a hipster mecca (buntings, craft beers, globe string lights) for the Freeform Festival. Upon entering the room, we see Pchy sitting near a table.
When he speaks, we realise he is in character as Mew from the film. The text of his lines, in Thai and translated into English, is flashed on the wall behind him. Some of them are direct quotes from Love of Siam. Mew addresses an invisible interlocutor opposite him. There is tragic innocence in his questions, coming from a character both immortalised on screen and trapped in time.
He asks: what happened to his co-star, Mario Maurer? We see images projected on the wall: a meteoric career, magazine covers, product endorsements. Maurer had managed to successfully slough off the stigma of his gay breakout role, his very heterosexual romantic exploits attracting tabloid bloodhounds.
And what else happened over 10 years? Unexpectedly, we get a montage of photos documenting a decade of turmoil – the Abhisit and later Yingluck administrations, the 2011 flooding, and the 2014 coup that installed the current military government. A fissure opens in this autobiographical work and the political oozes out like lava. The temperature of the room rises.
By the midpoint of the play, Mew exits the room. Through the windows, we see him shout and jump around victoriously. When he re-enters, he is holding a cocktail. He proceeds to sit down, this time facing the wall.
This is Pchy now. And he is responding to Mew’s questions, in the form of the surtitles, replayed from the first act. This second act, however, is performed only in Thai, without English surtitles. Nevertheless, because of Pchy’s effortless charisma, it is impossible to stop watching him.
Where Mew is boyish and a little reserved, Pchy’s beauty is more feminine and he is more animated. And yet there has been no change in makeup and costume, only a joyful, liberatory dance to get out of character. In describing his allure as ‘feminine’, I am not referring to his mannerism, but to a mysterious charm that draws you in even as it keeps you at a distance.
What I manage to piece together from this second part is how much of a shadow Mew has thrown over Pchy’s life. Fans refer to Pchy as Mew, and fantasise about Pchy and Tong carrying on a romance after the credits (in the film itself, Tong tells Mew: “I can’t be with you as your boyfriend. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”) One of his most requested songs (Pchy is also a singer) is the film’s theme song ‘Gun Lae Gun’.
At the end of Love of Siam, Tong gives Mew the stick-nose of a wooden toy as a present. This object resurfaces in Private Conversation. One thinks of the story of Pinocchio—a wooden doll that dreamed of becoming a real boy, and whose nose lengthens when he tells lies. As an act of renunciation—of Mew, this idealised, inauthentic persona—Pchy flings the nose in fury against the floor.
But is this cutting the nose to spite the face? For as much as Pchy wishes to disavow Mew, this piece, Private Conversation will also not exist without Mew. He is both albatross and muse. One of Mew’s lines in the play is “Thanks for bringing me to life.” Brought to life on screen, and laid to rest on stage. One senses that Mew would have trusted nobody else but Pchy to bury him.
The script is written by Pchy himself, and it is to his credit that it never veers into self-indulgent terrain. Instead it is tender, ambivalent, and wears its bruises lightly. The direction, by Wichaya Artamat, is supple and focused, never letting the metatheatrical frames dominate the pictures that they are framing.
A final note: on the night I watched Co/exist, a few days before Private Conversation, Pchy was actually sitting in the same row as me. I had thought about saying hello, to tell him how I recognised him from his role in Love of Siam. I wonder how he might have reacted if I had done that. Perhaps he would have smiled. Or laughed. He would have shown me any expression which would have said nothing about how he was really feeling inside.
Co/exist ran from 15 to 17 November at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.
Private Conversation: A Farewell to Love of Siam ran from 17 November to 3 December 2017 at ACMEN Ekamai Complex.
Rantau Reviews is a series of reviews of works staged in Southeast Asia by our Guest Contributor Alfian Sa’at. Alfian is a Resident Playwright with W!LD RICE. His published works include three collections of poetry, One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript, a collection of short stories, Corridor, a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches, and two collections of plays – Collected Plays One and Collected Plays Two, and the published play Cooling-Off Day.