Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Rantau Reviews: “Bangkok Notes”

By Alfian Sa’at

(1248 words, 10-minute read)

Tokyo Notes, a 1994 play by Oriza Hirata, was inspired by the 1953 film Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. The shift from ‘story’ to ‘notes’ forms what could be described as the play’s conceptual frame. While Ozu’s film tracked the story of an elderly couple visiting their children in Tokyo, Hirata’s play, fragmented and elliptical, noticeably lacks a cohesive narrative.

Bangkok Notes is an adaptation a of Tokyo Notes, translated for the Bangkok stage by Sawita Diteeyont and directed by Hirata himself. In Bangkok Notes, we are introduced to the five members of the Sirisilp family (the Akiyama family in the original) and two of the spouses. They have gathered at an art museum for a family reunion. We spend some time with the family members, but we also meet curators, an heiress, a solicitor, a few anti-war activists, a pilot, a former tutor and a couple of schoolgirls. There are, in total, twenty characters in the play.

Courtesy of the Japan Foundation, Bangkok. Photography by Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan.

We also learn that the museum is hosting an exhibition of paintings by the Dutch realist painter Jan Vermeer. But there are some troubling circumstances regarding their loan to the museum. Apparently, war is raging in some unspecified European countries, and the paintings are sent to the museum for safekeeping.

What is foregrounded keeps shifting, and the distinction between major and minor characters is unclear. The main characters, the Sirisilps, prattle about seemingly insignificant subjects, while peripheral ones, such as the curator, deliver what is probably the play’s most memorable speech, a breathlessly oratorical account of how advances in optics in the 17th century revolutionised ways of seeing. The footnotes to the play begin to overwhelm from its edges and emerge as its central thesis.

The notion of the periphery is useful in discussing Tokyo Notes, because of the notion of peripheral vision. In the visual arts, the frame of the painting delimits our visual field. While ostensibly a representation of the real, what we see is actually something that focuses on what is perceived by our central vision. We see the frame again in theatre’s proscenium arch, where the mise-en-scène is delimited by a rectangle.

But what if the frame is removed? In an interview, Hirata has mentioned, “I always hope that the audience members feel as if they are also on the stage sharing the same space. I would like them to feel and think about what’s happening on stage as if it is happening to them. It’s different from audience sympathising with the protagonist, which often is the case in many theatrical presentations.”

To these ends, what is often considered ‘dramatic’ is often eliminated—including dramatic beats, conflicts resulting in rising action, and an identifiable climax. Instead, what we get are characters who speak in incomplete sentences, airing unfinished ideas. Sometimes they deliver lines with their backs to the audience, or face to face along a horizontal axis, defying various blocking rules which insist on actors creating an illusion of addressing the audience.

Lines often overlap, and there are various times when two sets of conversations are happening simultaneously. Conversely, there are moments of silence that seem to extend a beat too long. In contrast with Pinter’s silences, which are often tense and menacing, Hirata’s silences are moments of slackening and dilation that sometimes threaten to break the ‘spell’ of the performance. Both of these techniques work to dissolve the frame, making the ‘overheard’ dialogue the aural equivalent of peripheral vision, and merging the silence on the stage with the silence of the audience.

Courtesy of the Japan Foundation, Bangkok. Photography by Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan.

On a formal level, Tokyo/Bangkok Notes is a radical reckoning with the question of realism in theatre. How much mimesis can theatre bear before it stops being theatrical? But while watching Bangkok Notes, I found myself grappling with the notion of cultural realities that differed across cultural contexts.

Hirata’s development of his ‘contemporary colloquial theatre’ style (or what some scholars called ‘quiet theatre’) was his reaction to plays from the Western canon. One of Hirata’s concerns is that “during Japan’s direct importation of Western drama [Japanese dramatists] also directly imported the way of writing plays as well”, leading to a “bizarre system of speech” that is “not natural to normal spoken Japanese”.

One must bear in mind that Hirata’s formalist experiment with realism is thus culturally specific, and that Tokyo Notes explores the mimesis not just of reality, but a Japanese reality-with its particular codes of social interaction marked by diffidence and conflict avoidance, and since the 90’s, its political mutedness, or rather its allergy to the more vivid colours on a political spectrum.

This begs the question of how the play can effectively be adapted into another cultural context. Can something universal emerge from something as culturally loaded as an Eastern revolt against Western dramaturgy? Is it possible to reproduce the form of the play without reproducing its intrinsic Japaneseness?

The Thai actors certainly rose to the challenge of the play, and valiantly tackled the eccentric rhythms of the play. Standout performances included those by Sumontha Suanpholrat, as Yai, the daughter taking care of her parents, brushing away her burnout with a cheerful sense of obligation; Varattha Tongyoo as her sister-in-law, Nun, her tinkling laughter turning brittle as she revealed that her husband was having an affair; and Sasidwat Suthigasame, who telegraphed a whirlpool of emotions with delicate restraint when an ex-student told him that she was once pregnant with his child.

Courtesy of the Japan Foundation, Bangkok. Photography by Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan.

Nevertheless, there was no escaping the sense that these were Thai bodies and Thai voices in a Japanese play. It made me reflect on Taipei Notes, a Taiwanese adaptation of the same work which I had watched in February in Yokohama. In that production, I did not find myself so distracted with these issues of cultural compatibility. But was it because the Taiwanese were better at embodying and performing Japaneseness? And could this have to do with their own history of having been once colonised by Japan? Is this smooth appearance of cultural consonance not the product of a violent and bloody past?

Given the incongruencies between Thai and Japanese culture which the production exposed, what became foregrounded for me was the political relationship between the two countries. How much do we recall of the fact that Thailand and Japan entered into a military alliance during World War II? That Thailand was the base from which the Japanese Empire advanced into Burma and Malaya? And that Japan rewarded Thailand with the four northern Malay states of British Malaya, called Si Rat Malai?

Granted, much of the blame for these collaborationist overtures was placed on Thailand’s pro-fascist military strongman, Plaek Phibunsonggram. But one could also make a similar argument for how Hideki Tojo dragged the whole of Japan into war and thus exonerate its people.

With Taipei Notes, I had found myself concentrating on the play’s formal aspects. With Bangkok Notes, however, the play’s political aspects were highlighted for me. How ‘neutral’ was Thailand during World War II? Similarly, how ‘neutral’ is a Bangkok museum that hosts paintings that leak like blood from Europe’s wounded flank?

In spite of its Japanese context and origins, there is at least one feature of Tokyo Notes which is universally recognisable. The play is unerring in its portrayal of characters in modern societies who insulate themselves in frames of their own making; whose introspection yields little insight but are only ways of disengaging from the chaos and the suffering of the ‘outside’ world. After all, “humankind”, as T S Eliot reminds us, “cannot bear very much reality”.



Bangkok Notes was staged at the Bangkok Theatre Festival in Thailand from 2 – 4 Nov 2017 and 9 – 11 Nov 2017 at Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

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.

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