The Bangkok Theatre Festival takes place at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, a handsome 9-storey rotunda building right beside the Siam Square shopping district. Instantly recognisable by its white, curved exterior, it houses a library, malls and galleries (the upper floors consist of a spiral ramp a la the Guggenheim Museum).
In terms of performance spaces, however, there is only one proper venue: a 150-200 seater black box studio on the 4th floor. There is an auditorium as well as a multi-function room, but these are more suitable for talks, seminars and conferences.
So how did the festival manage to cram close to 60 different performances over three weeks on these very premises? Through creative use of many of the other venues in the building, including meeting rooms which were rebranded ‘Miniboxes’ for the festival. These were otherwise utilitarian rooms, with white walls, grey carpets, and projectors suspended from ceiling mounts. And yet some of the most memorable performances that I witnessed at the festival happened within such spaces.
One of these was the play Hari Raya: the unwritten scenes of a family reunion by A Theatre Unit. Written and directed by company co-founder Nasrey Labaideeman, it was performed as a dramatised reading, with the actors in costume but holding their scripts.
Before entering the Minibox, we were told to leave our shoes at the door. While the act of removing one’s shoes before entering a house is common in many Asian cultures, it is of particular importance in Muslim households, as there are proscriptions against polluting the domestic environs with what is ritually ‘unclean’ or najis. Incidentally, the swarm of footwear at the door evoked images of Hari Raya visits, ‘Hari Raya’ being a particularly Nusantara way of referring to the Eid feast celebrations.
Adam (played by Piyaboot Chimmanee) is a young Thai-Muslim who accompanies his mother Da (Farida Jiraphan) to visit relatives during Hari Raya, including Da’s cousin, Yee. Some of these relatives live in the South of Thailand while others in Malaysia. This border region has seen the rise and fall of various polities, such as Langkasuka, the Sultanate of Pattani, and the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Consequently, ties of kinship among its people have always been been affected by shifting centres of kingship.
From the start of the play, when the cast hummed the melody to that Hari Raya evergreen, Suasana di Hari Raya (Ambience of Hari Raya), I found myself pleasantly disoriented. There were many things that were familiar to me: Yee shuffling about while wearing a kopiah (white skull cap), Da clucking and sighing in her tudung, even Adam outgrowing these family visits, where childlike excitement at meeting new friends is replaced by an awkwardness among longtime strangers. And yet the fact that the actors spoke in Thai (with fleeting instances of Kelantanese Malay) ensured a degree of cultural remove. The sensation was like a Hari Raya visit to relatives whom I never knew existed.
For a reading, the fine actors impressed with detailed character work. Farida was utterly convincing as a mother trying to affirm family ties which she knew were already strained and fraying. Nasrey was heartbreaking as her cousin, the less-loved son who nevertheless stayed behind to look after an invalid mother. And Piyaboot was a spot-on young adult, sulking over bad phone reception in one moment, and then comforting his mother in the next.
The political violence rocking Thailand’s south was told subtly through family history: their relocation from Narathiwat to Kelantan, and their journey towards obtaining dual citizenship. And yet the trauma lives on, in the character of Yee’s (unseen) mother, a raving old woman who suffers from nightmares. Nasrey, still in his 20s, has written a script of remarkable economy and rich subtext.
Other performances that struck me were Zero and Hertha Berlin, both by Dee-ng Theatre. Zero, co-directed by Kwin Bichitkhul and Praphaphan Suthirawut, took place at an oddly-shaped interior on the 6th storey, with its sharp angles and round carpet like a sumo ring. This ring, the main performance area, was fenced with fluorescent lights that glowed white, pink and green.
At the start of the performance, the actors, Kwin and Praphaphan, lay down on two ends, hidden from each other by a jutting corner. They then entered the ring, and executed well-rehearsed choreography, ducking from a swinging hand, leaping over a rolling body. A set routine was repeated, with increasing speed. There was exhilaration in watching how two bodies were, in effect, constantly making space for each other.
A following sequence was structured like a game, with Kwin as a competitor who was warming up for a match, and Praphaphan as what appeared to be his coach. It was clear that Kwin’s character was out to wow his girl, and the scene took on the suggestions of a courtship. A tennis ball was brought into the arena, and the two played a catching game with it. At some point, however, the ball became an imaginary object and actions were mimed instead.
In another sequence, Praphaphan started dancing to gleeful pop music, making moves as jaunty and corny as those of a cheerleader. Kwin would dance alongside, but with a noticeably less enthusiastic, even halfhearted attitude. Later, he would dress Praphaphan in an additional layer of clothes, and they would repeat the dance moves. This continued, layer after layer, until Praphaphan bounced around like a clumsy snowman, her eyes blindfolded by a headband.
Something had happened in the course of these two characters’ relationship—from states of synchronicity and simpatico to states of asymmetry and even violence. At the end of the performance, the two actors looked at each other, panting and smiling, as if acknowledging a game well played, or a final whistle that had sounded to signal that time had truly run out. They then proceeded to tear the translucent screen from the windows. It was an unmasking: a delicate light show of pulsing pastels was revealed to be the city’s gaudy electric trinkets. The two actors then sat in contemplation of the view. A soft, dreamy intoxication was replaced by hard, chilly sobriety.
Admittedly, a work like Zero resists an approach that would discuss the work in terms of the elements of drama—the story, the acting, etc. But one can commend the elements of its design, from the lighting by Palita Sakilchavanich which conjured a gauzy, video-game-like world to the sound design by Jirayu Pranee, which provided that world with its soundtrack of electronic blips and purrs.
Also, very often it is the abstraction of movement that asks the interesting questions: can sadness be energetic? How to slow down happiness? And how far do two bodies have to separate before the audience hears the sound of a thread breaking?
The other work by Dee-ng, Hertha Berlin, was yet another showcase of Kwin’s remarkable physicality. Playing a superfan of underdog German team Hertha BSC Berlin, he paced around in the Minibox, transfixed at a football match playing on a small television whose back was turned towards us.
His team was up against football juggernaut Manchester United, and he whooped, clapped, kissed posters of football players on the wall behind him, rose at attention during the team anthem, and groaned at the close shaves. In the meantime, the audience was left to reconstruct the match from a sports commentary (in Thai, surtitled in English) as well as the flashing beams from the TV screen that sculpted Kwin in light and shadow.
Judged purely on the above, the 30-minute performance was a comic delight, a loser’s devotion to a doomed team expressed through a body seemingly unaware that it was being watched. To be so unselfconscious was to be ridiculous, but also to be free. One could feel the kinesthetic identification that Kwin had with both the bodies of football players and the spectators at the stadium—a feeling that in turn infected us, the audience, as well.
But there was an additional context to the work which gave the work a surprising emotional ballast. For the performance was also a tribute to Kwin’s mother, who had passed away after a battle with cancer. And thus what one witnessed was also the dramaturgy of hope—the short-lived celebrations, the sudden nosedives into despair, the prayers for the loved one to turn the corner.
How novel and also how devastating: the exertions of the fan as analogy for the emotional labour of the bedside carer. Impossible not to feel moved and humbled by this reframing. This was less a loser’s devotion than a profound, intimate work devoted to loss.
These three works, performed in non-theatrical spaces, exemplified for me the ingenuity of a theatre scene that is chronically underfunded by the state. This, however, is not an appeal for theatremakers in Singapore to have their funding cut, in a perverse formulation where suffering artists make good art.
One must, instead, bear this fact in mind: theatremakers in Bangkok do not have to submit their script for vetting and do not need to apply for performance licenses. I can already imagine the kinds of ratings the Media Development Authority would have slapped on Hari Raya (for race and religion) and Hertha Berlin (for swearing). Going by the offerings at the Bangkok Theatre Festival, one can make a case for a stronger correlation between creativity and freedom than between creativity and money.
Hari Raya by A Theatre Unit was a play-reading held on 18 – 19 November 2017.
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.
About the author(s)
Alfian Sa'at 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.