Anna Leonowens is the handy target |in 'Siam Mission', but little more
Over the past two years a team of Chulalongkorn University theatre professors has been busy researching the life of Anna Leonowens, the English governess to the court King Rama IV, in an attempt to right the misrepresentations in her memoirs and expose the truth about her stay in Siam.
The outcome takes the form of "Siam Mission", a musical that premiered last Wednesday at the Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts.
The musical rebuts Leonowens’ claim that, as the only farang teacher of the princes and princesses, she was the main positive influence on their thoughts and played a big part in turning barbaric Siam into the more civilised kingdom it became. The Nation’s Pawit Mahasarinand, in a preview article, opined that it could be characterised as the post-colonial take on "The King and I".
But, while it’s true that the characters have a chance to amend accounts, it’s somewhat misleading call it a post-colonial version of the previously banned productions just by saying the idea of slavery abolishment existed in Siam prior to Anna’s arrival.
The words that "Siam Mission" uses to deride the governess evaporate the moment they pass the characters’ lips. Presenting Leonowens as a rather idiotic, self-absorbed character might be a fun way to get back at the real person, but it’s an interpretation that hardly puts Thailand on high moral ground.
Acclaimed singer Panadda Ruangwut does an excellent job portraying the pompous character who Thais love to hate. Too bad the musical numbers fail to showcase the best of her voice. At times it feels like she isn’t really needed onstage.
The musical, which revolves far more around the conflicts between ambitious young soldier Mitr and law student Singh, could have kept going with just the occasional mention of Leonowens. While her presence serves as a concrete reminder of the Western oppression that heightened the men’s clash of ideals, her character is very underused.
There are discrepancies in the characterisations too. At the start Mitr appears conservative, reproving Singh for following farang in his attire, attitude and demeanour. Later he appears to be backing more liberal ideas, saying Siam faces threats from the West because it is changing too slowly and no one takes risks.
The plot also "tells" more than it "shows" specific historical events, and many scenes were presented with little cohesion. For example, the audience suddenly learns that the fight between the two young men is less about ideals than Mitr’s jealousy of Singh winning a royal scholarship.
Then, they managed to quickly settle their differences after their superior, the gentle but firm Phu, reminds them rather out of the blue of how King Rama V eased the discord when the concept of democracy was first introduced to Siamese officials.
The tunes are pleasant and well rendered by the Faculty of Arts orchestra under the baton of Charunee Hongcharu. The actors playing Singh and Phu deserve special mention for both their singing and acting skills.
The musical calls for reconciliation among Thais themselves, sending a message that the older generation should allow young people to express different thoughts, while the young ones should respect the elderly. At the same time, it is also conveying another, somewhat contradictory message: As long as the government still doesn’t function properly, people should simply follow the wise words and actions of their king.
In this political climate, I am sure we would all like the path to a solution to be this simplistic. Reaching a middle ground sounds ideal, but it’s much easier said than done.
- "Siam Mission" continues until Sunday at 7.30 nightly with 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday.
- Tickets cost Bt500 (Bt200 for students).
- Call (02) 218 4802 and (081) 559 7252 or see the "Drama Arts Chula" page on Facebook.