A revival of a literary adaptation is a reminder that Thai performing arts are always interdisciplinary and intercultural – and fun too
Last Saturday was national children’s day and while the slogan, given to the young ones by the prime minister, was shorter than usual, kids had a wide variety of fun activities to enjoy at many venues, some of which are not usually open to the public. For most of them, a trip to National Theatre these days means a classical Thai theatre production like khon or lakhon nai, and of course an afternoon without classes plus a coach ride with friends.
It was different last Sunday afternoon, the last of the five-show run, as most youngsters were with parents and the Thai title “Lilit Phra Lor” came with an “AD 2019”, suggesting that this was a contemporary Thai theatre production. Of course, those who are old enough would also remember that it was here that national artist Patravadi “Khru Lek” Mejudhon gave a memorable solo performance “One Night with Patravadi” in the 1980s, after returning home from New York and even before founding Patravadi Theatre, now a boutique hotel, across the river in Soi Wat Rakhang. A showcase of dance, theatre and music from different genres and styles, that groundbreaking show defined not only her subsequent illustrious career but also contemporary Thai performing arts.
In her opening monologue, Khru Lek, as narrator, noted that this was already her fourth stage adaptation of the classic Thai literature “Lilit Phra Lor”. First was Thommayanti’s “Rak Thi Tong Montra”, which was also inspired by the Thai literature, seen at the long-closed Silpa Bhirasri Gallery back in the 1980s. Next was a play-within-a-play “Ror Rak Lor Lilit Lilit Phra Lor” 10 years ago at Patravadi Theatre, featuring a collaboration with American virtuoso violinist Kyle Dillingham. That version was later adapted into a smaller production, which toured major North American cities – a unique cultural ambassador that didn’t simply showcase the exotic traditional Thailand, but an intercultural and contemporary one. This 2019 production, even more stylistically diverse, was like a revival of “Ror Rak Lor Lilit Lilit Phra Lor”, with Dillingham reprising his role, albeit with slightly less stage time.
“Lilit Phra Lor” is clearly one of Khru Lek’s favourites, and after realising that I’ve understood this literature, and appreciated its timeless value, from her productions more than any Thai literature classes I took, I knew I wouldn’t mind watching it onstage again. By the end of this new 90-minute version, some kids and adults would probably agree that this was the most fun we’ve had either reading or watching “Phra Lor”. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the audience members were to pick up “Lilit Phra Lor” and read it again.
Khru Lek also noted that this was a staged reading, rather than a theatre production. Audiences soon realised, though, that this was simply a deft scheme to convince us to read this literary piece and not simply enjoy the sight and sound of its stage adaptation. Call it what you will: it was a unique afternoon at the National Theatre, with a work by a national artist and her collaborators who keep delighting and surprising us by taking artistic risks.
Settling into the theatre seats with more than ample legroom and seeing cello, keyboard, piano, and drum set along with traditional Thai xylophone the ranat ek and Thai percussion on stage left, it was fairly obvious that this wouldn’t be just another afternoon at our National Theatre. The show’s music director Anant Narkkong, a Silpathorn artist and ethno-musicologist who performs multiple instruments and music that as intercultural as the show itself, was another star of the show, without ever upstaging the dramatic story. That said, audiences in some seats on the sides and in the back voiced complaints that the sound system made it difficult to understand some words in certain songs.
Khru Lek and her conarrator, another veteran performer, Sansanee Sitapan, appeared onstage occasionally to read the original poems from the literature. This was another exercise in oral interpretation, which proved that good thespians are able to not only make sense of any difficult verses but also make them entertaining. Of course, most of the stage actions remained a fine juxtaposition of dance, music and theatre.
With its vast forestage in front of the large proscenium frame, the National Theatre was designed for grand scale productions of khon, and fitting a contemporary show in it was no easy task.
Instead of trying to fill all the horizontal and vertical space with a huge set, the set pieces here were movable and neutral, and lighting designers as well as video and projection designers added colours and theatrical touches for each scene. Another national artist Somchai Kaewthong and his Kai Boutique’s costume design fit the theatrical purpose perfectly.
Apart from long-time collaborators like Somchai and Anant as well as Lanna performing artist Krit Chaisinboon, Suphannahong-awarded actor Wannasak Sirilar and another Silpathornawarded choreographer Manop Meejamrat, Khru Lek also had some input from a new partner, Jitti Chompee. Those who have followed his works for 18 Monkeys Dance Theatre would be able to tell which scenes in “Lilit Phra Lor 2019” came with his choreography as his signature was dominant. Another was Tachaya “Keng The Voice” Pathumwan whose many fans witnessed that he, thanks to this theatre experience, could also act and not just sing and play musical instruments. Another performing arts troupe “Kid Buak Sip”, or performing art from positive thought, lent their multi-disciplinary prowess and their shadow play performance in an early scene drew loud applause.
It’s interesting to note that, with its diverse elements, some may choose to call “Lilit Phra Lor 2019” an eclectic, or hodgepodge, show, rather than an intercultural theatre production. For further discussion, I would turn to, as usual, a food metaphor. Here in Thailand, would you rather have Thai food at restaurants that Thai people frequent, with some dishes adapted from or inspired by European and other Asian cuisines, or those that are more popular among tourists, with only traditional Thai cuisine, some also with Michelin star accolades, and servers in traditional Thai costumes? If you choose the latter, then prepare to pay Bt300 for three pieces of khanom bueang for your dessert, and later ask your Thai friends how much they pay for them elsewhere.
See you in Hua Hin
- “Lilit Phra Lor 2019” continues tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm, and on Saturday at 8pm, at Vic Hua Hin, a five-minute drive from downtown Hua Hin.
- Tickets are Bt600, Bt800 and Bt1,000, at (032) 827 814 and Line “@VicHuaHin”. Students (undergraduates and lower) and seniors (65 and older) receive 50-per-cent discount.