Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Myanmar and Thailand – a short theatre update.

by Alanna Maclean

Puppets on the door. Yangon.

Early November sees the annual Bangkok Theatre Festival where all kinds of Thai theatre from the traditional to the experimental and contemporary are shown across two weeks. There are professional performers, community groups and the university drama departments like those at Thammasat and Chulalongkorn take a very active part. This year the central location is the Bangkok Cultural Centre. This curved building, which clearly owes a debt or two to the Guggenheim in New York and houses a variety of exhibition and performance spaces, sits just down from the National Stadium station on the BTS Skytrain and just round the corner from Jim Thompson House.

I wasn’t able to go this year but it is certainly on the future agenda.

However, in June I was able to catch some of the local contemporary theatre at work at Democrazy Studio. This is one of Bangkok’s smaller theatres and it was hosting a seminar on a Thai Japanese collaboration on Japanese playwright Hanchu Yuei’s Girl X and funded by Japan Foundation Bangkok.

The original Girl X, which was awarded Best Play and Best Script at the Bangkok Theatre Festival in 2014, no longer contains a ‘girl’ but seems to have become a lament for the dead of all wars and revolutions and earthquakes and recessions and  Fukushima style disasters and the awful universality of brutality. Two male performers fall and freeze and contort continually on a white field in front of on screen text in three languages; Japanese, English and Thai. What this does to the trilingual I do not know but my rudimentary Thai reading caused restlessness as I tried to decipher, then went back to the English for the sense, while at the same time trying to take in the Intense, wry, butoh style of the two performers.

Democrazy Studio is a powerful black box venue where contemporary theatre and debate seems to flourish. The seminar itself was robust and shot through with a strong sense of Japanese and Thai irony and perception. It’s a small but concentrated theatre scene where everyone knows everyone else. 

And yes, there is a sense that we are not the only culture who might be debating the experimental versus the tried, true and safe in theatre. Another possible offering in town was Boeing Boeing in Thai. I passed.

In Burma I was amazed by the tumble of Yangon and the banjolele in the markets that could be had for about $80 and the golden Shwedagon Pagoda floating above all the holed streets and lively street life and cinemas and dozens of optometrists shops run by English speaking Muslims and red splashes on the pavements from betel chewing and the newly opened KFC with queues outside and security guards on the door while outside in the streets there was much more gorgeous street food on sale. 

More excitement was to be had because they drive on the right. 

One day in the space of five minutes I spoke to a one armed dwarf and a one legged monk while looking at a stall that was trying to sell me an amulet of the Thai King Chulalongkorn. Watch your head under the bridge near the hotel and carry a torch because of blackouts. I found the tomb of the last of the Mughal emperors and the house of Aung San Suu Kyi and a couple of magnificent Buddhas via obliging taxis. 

But being on a tour can limit your options especially if the rest of the group are not particularly into chasing performances.

However, here’s what I found.

Bagan puppets
In Bagan the group went to a marionette and dinner evening at the Nanda Restaurant and Puppet Show.  Small raised curtained stage with the puppeteers standing behind the waist high backdrops, live orchestra, tourist audience and much play with the occasional reveal of the puppeteers at work. The sequences blend Ramayana and Buddhism with ceremony and folk tales and animism. The strings are multiple and characters, including the mysterious galloping horse who is part of the creation of all things, can and do fly around.

In Mandalay, which we reached by river, I was unable to get Kipling’s geographically impossible song out of my head.

Here you can see the well established Mandalay Puppets and also The Moustache Brothers, famous for controversial Burmese stand up.

Mandalay Puppet Theatre

The Mandalay Puppets travel and I had first seen them at a puppet festival in Ubud in 2014, being fascinated by their intelligent upturned faces. Again, an audience of tourists but this time in a narrow theatre, festooned with puppets on the walls. Ramayana, Buddhism, animism and folk tale combined and you begin to see repetitions and patterns.

Mandalay puppets
The Moustache Brothers. One of them, the one who was imprisoned, the one referred to in the film About a Boy, is dead, but his brother, cousin and what looks like a tribe of relatives keep the show going. The venue is a roller door fronted garage with chairs arranged so you have your back to the roller door and are facing a shallow platform backed with curtains. The stage area is a little littered with old AV equipment and signs. There's a circular stair just visible behind the curtains which probably goes to an upstairs flat and certainly sees some traffic during the show as people flit upstairs probably for costume changes.

When the show is about to start a curtain is drawn across the roller door entrance, blocking the view from the street.

The audience is a strange mixture. All foreigners. The show can't go on for the locals. That would run it into censorship.   But it can, weirdly, run as a show for the tourists. So there are Singaporeans, Scandinavians, Australians, New Zealanders, Germans, all wondering what has hit them as Burmese stand up gets underway in English.

The Moustache Brothers
It's funny, dry stuff, with a satirical line in international politics, once you cotton on to the Burmese accent. And as the show progresses a strong element of Burmese dance and folk performance washes in as richly costumed performers with attitude join the longyi clad comedians.

Afterwards there are T shirts on sale that read in part 'If you have not seen our dancing you cannot say you have been to Mandalay'. Well, I’ve now been to Mandalay and I even bought the T shirt. Comedy under pressure but surviving.

Moustache Brothers - outside the theatre
Over in Nyaung Shwe, on Inle Lake, I go off in search of another puppet show. It’s only round the corner from the hotel but take a torch and make sure your shoes are up to rock covered roads. This is the Aung Puppet Theatre, and what happens there is a one man show of great energy and versatility. The little shop front set up has a room at the back with a bed and a woman, perhaps Aung’s wife, is helping. But Aung takes the money, puts out refreshments and does a pre and post show running commentary. There are three of us in the audience, again, all tourists, in a space that might accommodate 20, but the show goes on regardless. 

I’m daft enough to ask if there will be any Ramayana episodes. Well, no, he says, there’s only me and it will therefore be all solos. And that, excitingly , is what it is.
Aung's puppet theatre

There’s taped sound - no live orchestra here. There is no ceremony to placate the nat spirits at the beginning as that takes two puppeteers. But there is a series of short dances from the repertoire; the horse of the Creation, the magician, a king, a monkey and the village simpleton with a broken umbrella all appear engagingly. Some of the backdrops are disarmingly home made and we do not get any reveals of the single puppeteer at work. (Only glimpses of him energetically working the sound, the curtains, the marionettes.) He comes out afterwards sweating, exhausted and answers any questions you might have. He started training at 8 and it went on for 5 years. His uncle makes the puppets that are for sale decorating the walls of the tiny space. Two shows a night at 7 and 9.

I get lost on the way home via the blacked out rock covered street complete with roaming dog packs. Thank goodness for a torch. 

Aung Theatre's curtain warmers.

Back in Yangon and I fall into conversation with a taxi driver and am reminded that the Htwe Oo puppet theatre is walking distance from the hotel. I go round there the first night and am faced with the darkest steep staircase in all the world. Restaurant next door yields no information so I go back next day to find the staircase is still stygian in daylight but that there is a travel agency open upstairs who, it turns out, can negotiate with the puppeteers. Who clearly, from the signage and the puppets hanging on the door opposite, do exist.

Snag – it is low season and they will not come out for under 5 people. By now the tour group I am with has well and truly dispersed and in any case they were not theatre mad. So taking a deep breath and dropping into Australian thinking I go for the other offered option. Which is, to commission a performance for $50 at 6 pm. With an audience of one.

Too good to pass up. So that night I’m back at the appointed time and knock on the puppet door.

Inside a tiny flat has been converted to a small warm puppet theatre (seats about 24) and I am welcomed cheerfully as a patron of the art by the director Khin Maung Htwe. It turns out that he too is theatre mad, thanks to a mother who took him to lots of theatre when he was a child and extensive travels when he was a seaman. I am introduced to the troupe of 7, mostly family, some very young, one a master puppeteer in his 80s, and the puppets. Manipulating multiple strings is much harder than it looks. I think it’s about 11. Some of them are loose and not attached to a frame.  The demonstration makes it clear that the puppets have genitalia, despite wearing clothes. I realize that the puppets with two bunches of hair, that I had casually seen as female, are actually male, the brightly dressed court pages who show the court where people need to go. 
The pages.

This is their fourth or fifth theatre space, a converted flat. They have moved around a lot. The cyclone and political upheaval did not help. I retire to the audience area, the sole viewer, feeling weirdly like some kind of potentate.

Htwe Oo. Narrow space.
No room for a live orchestra here – the space is narrow and their 24 foot backdrops will not fit into a 9 foot wide stage. They compensate with a lot of velvet. But it’s a lusciously lit and presented show. There are nats, Garuda and naga, pages, upper class and lower class lovers, the magician, kinnara/kinnaree dancers, monkeys and the horse who is dancing for the Creation – he is the first constellation.

After the show there is lots of talk via the English speaking Khin Maung Htwe.  There is a blackout, luckily after the show finishes, but we survive that with torches. They also have Jakata stories, which we don’t see tonight. The old master has hours of them in his head, not written down. Will they be written down? Will they be passed on?

As I finally leave to navigate back to the hotel they present me with a DVD of their work and a small version of a page puppet to take home. I am very appreciative of a performance that has allowed me to make some better sense of the traditions they are working so hard to revive and preserve.

A pesky medical issue meant an early return home so I did not get the planned chance to follow up on Bangkok theatre connections when I got back to Bangkok from Yangon. An excuse to return, of course. I’m gradually and delightedly widening my knowledge of performance in SE Asia.

Google Aung Puppet Theatre Ngaung Shwe for a good video of The Magician dancing.

Htwe Oo puppets.

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