Tale of six reigns
The restaging of Thailand's most commercially successful musical play is more pro-absolute monarchy than ever
LAST TUESDAY, Her Royal Highness Princess Somsavali, representing His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn, graciously presided over the gala performance of the 2017 restage of Scenario’s “Si Phaendin: The Musical” at Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre.
The night before I was among the audience watching the last preview performance of this longest running western-styled Thai musical play for the third time. And because I witnessed more the familiar than the unfamiliar, I am choosing to call this production a restage as opposed to a revival.
Among these familiar facets is the return of the lead cast members from the original production in 2011, namely Sinjai Plengpanich as Mae Phloi; Napat “Gun” Injaiuea as the teenage version of her husband Khun Prem; Anuttaphon “R” Sirichumsang, her adopted son Un; and Rudklao Amratisha, her lifelong unmarried friend Mae Choi. Also reprising his role of Mae Phloi’s first natural son On is Saranyu “Ice” Winaipanit.
Sinjai’s singing skills have significantly improved over the past few years, and her acting prowess can carry the entire play as the narrator/protagonist. However, as in the original 2011 and 2013 restage productions, her character doesn’t age as realistically as that of Mae Choi leading one to wonder if the latter is actually her aunt in the second act. Napat and Anuttaphon are both effortless and the former’s character is so slick that it’s not quite credible to see the transition into much calmer, and more fitting to this role, Kittiphat Phumsukhorak, an understudy for Kriengkrai Unhanan, in the role’s adult years.
Thanks to her critically acclaimed role in the TV drama, Rudklao was met with applause on her first entrance and delighted with her much-anticipated solo number. Saranyu delivered the most commendable performance as he excels in both acting and singing and, unlike many other actors in Scenario productions, rarely full-fronts the audience to show off his prowess but concentrates on his scene partners. Indeed, his characterisation is so strong that when he admits his ideological fault of having become “too liberal”, or “too French”, it’s as if the script’s was forcing him to confess.
Also quite familiar is the casting of newcomers in the roles of the young and teenage Mae Phloi. Nararak Phumsukhorak and Amornphat Sermsap are both good singers but in their first major stage roles they’re frequently standing still downstage centre and watching the conductor from one of the three TV monitors on the balcony.
The audience is already accustomed to the play’s high-speed pacing, as it attempts to cover a number of social, political, cultural as well as familial conflicts. The assumption here is that audience members already know the story by heart from reading MR Kukrit Pramoj’s novel or watching previous TV and stage adaptations. The pace seemed to slow for more emotional impact when the news of the death of a king reached Mae Phloi, and the main theme song “Nailuang Khong Phaendin” (“King of the Land”), which today is frequently heard on radio and TV, is reprised again and again.
The first unfamiliar event was the appearance by director Takonkiet Viravan onstage before the rise of the curtain. This is unusual, as on Broadway, for example, the director would only appear when something is wrong with his or her production and the audience needs explanation. Equally unfamiliar was that his claim the most important element of the play is “the audience”. Here again, while other theatre artists and scholars would always prioritise story, script or acting, Takonkiet noted that, unlike film and TV, theatre is a two-way communication.
Probably the most unfamiliar and noteworthy facet is the play’s now very clearly wrought theme that in life, we always encounter changes, and for Thai people, we should always put our kings in the centre of our heart. The play opens with the scene in which the spirit of Mae Phloi starts to recount her life story and confirm her unwavering love for “kings”, and the background is the familiar image of people gathering outside the wall of the Grand Palace paying respect to the late King Bhumibol.
And with the last scene showing Thai people paying respect to King Vajiralongkorn, the play now covers six, not four, reigns.
Clearly, the play also tries, more clearly than the original novel, to prove, through what happened to a former aristocrat family, that Thailand was much better before 1932 than after. This outdated attitude doesn’t sit too well in 2017 Thailand, as we try to build our political system from “military junta under a constitutional monarchy” to “unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy”, a kind of democracy that is already difficult to explain to our friends from many countries.
Rumour has it that Takonkiet is considering a prequel to “Si Phaendin”, recounting the lives of Mae Phloi’s parents and grandparents during the reigns of King Rama I to King Rama IV.
If true, then combined with these six reigns, the musical will duly become “the play of Krung Rattanakosin” as it’s being advertised.
- Scenario’s “Si Phaendin: The Musical” continues at Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre (MRT: Thailand Cultural Centre) until October 8. The run, like every work by this company, will probably be extended.
- It’s on Thursday to Saturday at 7.30pm and on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and is in Thai with English surtitles.
- Tickets cost from Bt500 to Bt3,000 (30-per-cent discount for students, undergraduate level and lower only), at Thai Ticket Major counters and online at www.ThaiTicketMajor.com.
- Find out more at, www.Rachadalai.com.