Taboos smashed in the street leap onto the stage at Thai theatre festival

‘OK Land’
‘OK Land’

The yellow rubber ducks, catch phrases (“Okay, No. 1!” or “Very brave. Very good. Thank you.”) and ideological clashes raging in the streets nationwide are also resonating in theatres with artists expressing their stances on the stage.

Biting satire of royal proportions, hilarious allegories that left little room for interpretation and timely takes on today’s politics shortened the distance between stage and street this year at the Bangkok Theatre Festival.

The return of Thailand’s longest-running contemporary theatre festival, held annually since 2002, was anything but sure in a year that saw the performing arts paralyzed for months due to the pandemic. While some artists and companies kept active by experimenting with technology to create online performances, play-reading or streaming past works, it wasn’t until July that audiences were welcomed back into venues.

Among its almost 40 shows, there were many performances that proved excellent in artistic expression and exercise of free speech to challenge the status quo. This theatre fan writer saw as much of it as possible as a member of the festival’s awards committee.

Although there were fewer shows with no international artists, the festival’s 17th edition was an oasis for both artists and aficionados to appreciate the craft while sharing the space and time as it should be.

'The Land of Frang Frang in 1684'
‘The Land of Frang Frang in 1684’

In the festival’s most talked-about performance, The Land of Frang Frang in 1684 by Bangkok Theatre Network, the audience was brought back to vibe in ‘60s France in a land called Frang Frang. Inspired by Moliere’s “The Rehearsal at Versailles” and David Hirson’s “La Bete,” the genius playwright and director Parnrut Kritchanchai recounted a story of the director of a royal court’s theatre troupe who is ordered to work with a talented youngblood artist to create a fun, modern performance. The clashes between their two worlds came with witty gags, sarcasm and execution by a star cast that left the audience with barely a minute to stop laughing at the similarities between its fictional land and the one they live in. It received the BTF Special Mention Award. Among the characters was a mute female servant abused physically and mentally by her patrons who eventually is heard and provides solutions for all.

A mute was also employed in Circle Theatre’s OK Land as a male ghost in a university uniform with a video recorder who observes the lives in a megachain convenience store of the same name. He’s seen by only a few people and does not know who he was and the cause of his death, while the audience gets hints that he was killed amid political turbulence. The clashes of consumerism, social status and political ideologies were portrayed straightforwardly and rather fairly in the play which could help people understand one another better and realize that the land is actually neither OK nor compromising.

'Before Takeoff'
‘Before Takeoff’

Before Takeoff by an emerging company Bloom Theatre also raised an interesting question about true leadership. While OK Land reflected on a director who never truly cared about employees and customers, Before Takeoff tells the story of a self-centered airline director who suddenly wants to take over the role of a captain and fly the plane. Amidst the funny takes and parody songs, the play surprises by portraying the flight attendants’ quest for rights, liberty and equality.

The Best Performance of Bangkok Theatre Festival 2020 (yes, that’s the title) was undeniably the most progressive and freshest performance this year. Created by best theatre friends Pathavee Thepkraiwan, Pathipon Adsavamahapong and Thanaphon Accawatanyu, it not only satirized what’s going on in the country but also went beyond with a daring stance that honestly criticized the theatre world, from its educators, critics and award-givers to the festival itself. To further deconstruct the “the best performance” stereotype, the power trio brilliantly chose to read from scripts on stage in a performance that featured drag, rap, shadow play, a seminar speech and the ‘Lu’ slang dialect popularly used for gossip. While it did not win Best Performance, it instead took home the Best Script Award.

Apart from spoken plays, other forms of performance also resonated. For example, Red Tide Zombie, a dance piece by the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company and Burapha University’s performing arts faculty, illustrated the liberation of the dancers from traditional form with dance numbers set to K-pop and Morlam beats, and the teenagers’ shift from consumerism to a quest for democracy. Haa Mee Nii Khing Mee Naii? (I’m here, where are you?), a Lanna contemporary dance by Sirisook Dance Theatre of Chiang Mai, adapted the romantic tale of a woman waiting for her lover and searching for him everywhere, even in space! The play’s title makes a not subtle reference as to whom its aimed. Lastly, Switched, was a contemporary take on Lakhon Chatri, a form of folk musical comedy. Staged by the Anatta Theatre Troupe, it recounted the story of a prince and his grandmother who are antagonizing each other due to their generational gap. When their bodies are mysteriously switched, they learn more about each other’s motivations and collaborate to restore peace to the land.

Most of the listed shows have ended though some still have dates. Even for those who’ve had their final curtain call, the statements and questions raised remain to ignite audiences to seek truth and clarify doubt. As society’s state is not settled. and people are still voicing demands for a better future, these artists will continue to express their views and fight through their craft both on the street and stage.

'Haa Mee Nii Khing Mee Naii?'
‘Switched’
'Red Tide Zombie'
‘Red Tide Zombie’
'The Best Performance of Bangkok Theatre Festival 2020'
‘The Best Performance of Bangkok Theatre Festival 2020’
'The Best Performance of Bangkok Theatre Festival 2020.'
‘The Best Performance of Bangkok Theatre Festival 2020.’

Kaewta Ketbungkan is a freelance culture and lifestyle writer, a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics and founder of the Bangkok Offstage podcast.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified a photo as being from Haa Mee Nii Khing Mee Naii? that was in fact from Switched.

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