By Alfian Sa’at
(1500 words, 7-minute read)
We can tell a few things about a theatre scene from the categories in its awards shows. In the International Association of Theatre Critics-Thailand (IACT-T) annual nominations list, there is one particular category for ‘movement-based performance’. This indicates that either there is a sheer variety of movement-based performances in Bangkok, or that its theatre critics believe that movement-based works cannot be evaluated with the same criteria as text-based ones.
Something Missing, a collaboration between Thailand’s B-Floor Theatre and Korea’s Theatre Momggol, is an example of one of these ‘movement-based performances’. Co-directed by Teerawat Mulvilai and Jongyeon Yoon, the work is divided into a prologue, six chapters and an epilogue.
Each chapter takes inspiration from either a fable or literary work. The first chapter is based on the Visit of the Magi episode from the Gospel of Matthew. The second cites from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The third is from Korean folklore: a king was born with donkey ears, and only the royal crown maker knew. Unable to keep such an obscene secret to the grave, the crown maker entered a bamboo grove and shouted, “the king has donkey ears!” When he left, the bamboo leaves echoed his words. The king later ordered that the grove be cut down, but the wind still carried those damning words wherever they blew.
The fourth chapter is based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The fifth is from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana), about the demon Nontok, who was granted the boon of a diamond finger that would annihilate anybody it was pointed at. The sixth chapter is based on Seni Saowapong’s 1953 novel The Ghost (Pisart), which tells the story of a young couple challenging feudal attitudes.
From such varied sources, certain themes and motifs emerge. One is the notion of a messianic figure promising salvation and relief, who is referred to in the Bible as well as Waiting for Godot. Both South Korea and Thailand witnessed momentous leadership changes in late 2016—the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye as well as the succession of a new king in Thailand. The early scenes seem to ask whether political leaders are imbued with a messianic aura during times of crisis. But what if they are King Herods instead, who ordered the massacre of children for fear that the messiah was among them?
When one thinks of the Massacre of the Innocents, one also thinks of the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, which led to more than 200 student deaths in South Korea. The government’s attempts to clamp down on protests can be linked to the donkey-eared king’s command to chop down the truth-telling bamboos. This regal order also reminds one of Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, probably the most draconian in the world, with a penalty of between three to fifteen years imprisonment. The fact that anyone can make a formal complaint carries echoes of the girls in The Crucible, whose accusing fingers are as fatal as Nontok’s.
The performance itself is not explicit about these ideas, and can appear mystifying and oblique. Seven disciplined Korean and Thai actors occupy the stage, often enacting situations involving cunning power play and gleeful violence. Bicycles are fought over. Bodies are slammed into walls. A mob gangs up against a suspect, and what looks like a game of tag quickly turns vicious.
Then there are the ominous spectacles. A scaffold on wheels, festooned with flowers, circles the stage like a processional float. In a heart-stopping moment, the performer standing at its top grabs onto the rafters, and the scaffold rolls on without him. A wind machine hurricanes red streamers from the side; the performers claw their way towards it like masochistic devotees. An almost naked performer is sprayed with red paint against a wall, and the outlines of his moving body creates ghostly graffiti.
There are times, however, when the potency of an image is dissipated in the large space of the BACC studio. This seems to be the case for those tableaus which involve fewer actors, or when the blocking is directed a little more inwardly, such as when a group of bouquet-clutching, high-heeled mourners surround a body at what appears to be a martyr’s funeral.
Something Missing is a deeply political work. The question is whether the choice of a movement vocabulary to express its ideas is one motivated by aesthetic need or political necessity. There is no denying that artists in Thailand put themselves at considerable risk if their work is seen as criticising the monarchy or the military junta. So opting for the polysemy—or inscrutability—of bodies, visual images and other design elements might be one strategy to avoid censure.
Theatre critic Amitha Amranand has noted the limits of movement-based political theatre: “A lot of the issues are getting mired in the abstract.” On the other hand, Singapore playwright Eleanor Wong once complained how political theatre in Singapore has “become more blunt”, and how this kind of direct utterance represented a loss.
For Amitha, “what’s needed is not more symbols and metaphors, but specificity and complexity.” For Wong, the political plays that she missed were those with “deep, cutting, very sarcastic commentary embedded inside what looked like fables”. The allegorical mode might be seen as an evasive manoeuvre, but out of regimes of silence new performance languages get their chance to be born.
Plan B: The Master Plan by Democrazy Theatre Studio is also what I consider a political work, although its form is better described as interactive and post-dramatic. Exploring the issue of inequality, the work constantly blurs the line between the real and the representational, unsettling notions of poverty, destitution and charity.
Upon entering the theatre, we are greeted by a performer in blue coveralls (Kwin Bhichitkul) and holding a clipboard. He tells us that before the performance can begin, we are to be screened first. He invites all of us to sit on the stage. We then hear a woman’s voice over the speaker system, first in Thai, and then in English. She asks us a set of questions, designed to sort us according to our wealth and status.
We are asked whether we have connections that allowed us to enter prestigious schools. Whether we can afford expensive holidays. Whether we collect artworks or exotic pets. How much our clothes cost, how much we spent on our most recent meal. After each question, the performer approaches us one by one to hear our answers. Those who ‘pass’ can then sit back at the audience seats. Those who ‘fail’ are to remain on stage.
However, I feel that there is something counterintuitive in the setup. Why are the seats offered to those who are already privileged in real life? And then I realise that this is precisely meritocracy in action. All of us have an equal opportunity to a seat—we can all hear the voice from the speaker, and the performer gives all of us equal attention. But only those with certain advantages will advance.
This illustrates to me the misrecognition that some of us have of meritocracy: that equal opportunity creates equal outcomes. Some people believe meritocracy reduces inequality. In reality meritocracy is what entrenches it. And this misrecognition is what leads to the poisonous attitudes surrounding poverty: entitlement on the part of the haves, and self-blame on the part of the have-nots.
After around an hour of screening, two members of the public are left on stage. Spotlights fall on them; they are now (hesitant) actors. We hear stories over the speakers, in first person narration, describing how they have fallen on hard times: a flooded village, medical bills, being stateless, all accompanied by sentimental piano-tickling. After each story, the performer steps up to appeal for donations from the audience, for various things such as a ‘wheelchair’, ‘food’ and ‘medicine’. He manages to collect a few hundred baht, some candy, and even a banana.
But why did we not contribute more? After all, the fact that we are in the seats means that compared to the ones on stage, we are better off financially. I try to rationalise this—the money I am giving is real, but the ‘victims’ on stage are not. They are only ‘representing’ the poor. But to ‘win’ my seat, I had given real information about my economic circumstances. Why rely on the real to give me an advantage, but insist on the representational when it comes to charity?
Despite the rigour of the work’s design, I did wonder about the stakes presented. Those who sat on the floor of the stage were still comfortable, while those on the seats only slightly more. How can one exacerbate the difference between these two sites, such that the desire to get a seat (or escape the stage) is more urgent? I was also interested to know how the sorting would have played out among a more demographically-mixed audience, and not one that was predominantly young and middle-class.
Nevertheless, director and creator Apom Kijreunpiromsuk has managed to ask some provocative questions in Plan B. Is it ‘natural’ human instinct to be competitive or are we conditioned to do so under a capitalist system? How many of us look behind us when we are ahead in the race? And when those behind are placed facing us, who among us will look at them, and who will look away?
Something Missing by Thailand’s B-Floor Theatre and Korea’s Theatre Momggol ran from 12 to 17 December at the Bangkok Art & Culture Center. It was performed in Korean and Thai with English surtitles.
Plan B: The Master Plan by Democrazy Theatre ran from 13 to 17 December at the Democrazy Theatre Studio.
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.