By Alanna Maclean
Never underestimate the vitality of Shakespeare. Bell Shakespeare has just been in town with a Macbeth with a very spare and contemporary approach.
Meanwhile a film based on Macbeth called Shakespeare Must Die has just been banned in Thailand.
Updates are nothing new for the look of a Shakespeare of course but what happens when his plays are being viewed by those for whom English is not the first language? (I don’t include the moanings of decades of English speaking students who have generally gone from Shakespeare illiterate to Shakespeare literate once they got themselves on stage doing it.)
Late in 2011 I was doing a workshop about Shakespeare in Thailand at Makhampom Theatre’s Chiang Dao centre. We’d called it Shakespeare in the Rice Fields but it really didn’t end up being about that in more than a metaphysical way. We were in the main theatre space there, which is like a long, two-storied version of the New Globe in London surrounded by water and sitting in the middle of the rice fields. Because the sides are open in the daytime the rice fields become a background. You are never, in that place, unaware of agriculture. (Or architecture)
Makhampom’s Richard Barbour was a bit nervous about language since it looked like the group were going to be all Thai (The non-Thais had not come to Thailand for the big Makhampom Theatre Reunion Forum fortnight to find out about Shakespeare). So was I but only because my Thai is still only enough to navigate a market, a restaurant or a taxi ride. I’m a long way from following the snappy dialogue of a satirical likhe play with any kind of comprehension. However, I’d just spent two weeks teaching drama to Akha students in Chiang Rai and had confidence as always in the Thai translator, what mutual English and Thai we might all muster and the goodwill that always accompanies Makhampom.
As for Shakespeare’s language, we weren’t going to be tackling that except for the occasional short key quotation. If I’d chosen Hamlet the key one might have been ‘To be or not to be’. Or the Ghost’s ‘Remember me…’. The intent was to work on the two turning points in The Winter’s Tale, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ (the only stage direction in Shakespeare that I am inclined to trust) and the scene where Hermione’s statue comes to life at the end and Leontes says ‘O she’s warm’.
The group were frank about what they saw as their lack of knowledge. ‘We know Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet’ they said but actually there’s much more Shakespeare in Thailand than that and they showed that they knew about Hamlet and Macbeth at least by name. And one of the Thai kings, Oxford educated King Rama VI, translated three of his plays (The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet) into Thai. I even once glimpsed the casket scene from The Merchant of Venice being done by a school group in a Bangkok mall.
What they came up with in a two hour session (that extended into a longer discussion) were a couple of moving and accurate responses to the two scenes, underpinned by lifetimes of training in Thai movement and performance styles. As for the language, it became Thai for the purposes of the afternoon and much could be said about the way clowns seem to be universal. This group rightly brought the man eating bear and the clown seeing it all and the people drowning on the ship sinking at sea all on stage. We don’t know what Shakespeare’s theatre did with ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, but the group bought right into the theatricality of the scene. The sound of the drums scraping across the concrete floor, accidentally discovered and incorporated, was a nerve-racking addition to the bear’s slow motion meal.
I admit to having to hold back any interference when the group put a very 1960s bucket hat on the head of Hermione for the statue scene but when it ran in performance she echoed the 1960s Queen Sirikit who came with the king to Australia and dazzled my generation with her glamour. Again, the emotion of the moment was there. And for an hour after we were supposed to finish we were all still there, talking about what the session had uncovered about ways to work on a daunting text by targeting the key moments.
If you want some idea of the epic stories that drive Thai performance then they can be found among Makhampom’s contemporary performances. Elements of the Thai Ramayana (the Ramakien) surfaced during the many Thai performances at the Forum as did Buddhist and folk tales.
These can also be seen in a variety of much more commercial theatre pieces in Bangkok. Shows like the royal sponsored Sala Chalermkhrung and the huge Siam Niramit are a good introduction to the Thai sense of the epic as is the Phuket Fantasea, complete with acrobats over the audience’s heads, a procession of elephants and a bevy of live chickens. The Joe Louis Puppets may have to be hunted out from wherever they are now based, having lost their old Bangkok theatre, but I’m sure I spotted some of their half life size puppets each with two to three operators at the Thai Festival in Sydney a few weeks ago.
There’s also a contemporary ‘black box theatre’ scene that is well worth searching for. Patravadi Theatre over the river in Thonburi stages some good examples of this but there’s also lovely socially acute work done by Makhampom in their tiny converted beauty parlour in Saphan Kwai (‘behind the police post where the bomb went off ‘) and by powerful groups like the Butoh based B-Flor. You won’t find most of this in Lonely Planet but a search of the internet and an eye on the newspaper arts pages might just send you down a dark alley to see Thailand’s theatre of the now.
Shakespeare might not always feature (I did once see a Thai version of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther at the Crescent Moon theatre in the Pridi Banomyong Institute) but if he does, rest assured he will be bent to Thai needs and views.