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Against the tide

'Mahajanok' an ancient tale of perseverance, throwing light on modern traumas

Against the tide

The Makhompom troupe is back home performing in its Bangkok studio after a successful tour with "Mahajanok Never Say Die" that took in Hong Kong and South Korea. But catch them while you can - they will soon be back on the road for a trip to Taipei.

Two years since its debut at 2005's Bangkok Theatre Festival, and following an Australian tour last year, "Mahajanok Never Say Die" is now better than ever. Using His Majesty the King's tale of perseverance, and overlaying it with stories of communities' trauma and conflict largely ignored by other media, "Mahajanok Never Say Die" is proof that good theatre can be both enjoyable and substantial at the same time.

In the original story, the goddess Mekhala rescues King Mahajanok from the sea having witnessed his perseverance in swimming for seven days. In this intriguing adaptation, themes of human determination and humanitarian aid are subtly yet deeply probed to bring out the truth behind events in tsunami-struck Phang-nga, in Karenni refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, and in Yala, one of the three Muslim-majority Southern provinces.

With a simple set, costumes and lighting design, and sensitive musical accompaniment, Pradit Prasartthong and Duangjai Hirunsri, veteran performers steeped in the theatre and traditional and modern dance, manage to successfully link current events with the thousand-year-old Buddhist tale. Performing in a foreign language - English - last Saturday they were able to bring their characters alive, thanks in part no doubt to their experience touring this play overseas. In addition, their well-honed performance style showed a fine blend of traditional Thai dance, contemporary dance and Western-style acting.

While Pradit and Duangjai are a fixture for all the shows, the identity of the narrator changes - and this adds spontaneity to the performance. On Saturday, theatre lecturer Pattarasuda Anuman-Rajadhon took the job. Her powerful energy, strong focus and clear diction helped draw the audience into the action. The list of performers who have been invited to narrate this play includes English theatre director Geoff Cresswell, Time Out Bangkok's editor Philip Cornwel Smith, and Channel V's Ekkachai Waritcharaphon.

After the 45-minute performance, the audience was invited for an informal post-play discussion with the cast and director. Pretty much everyone stayed in their seat.

Pradit began by apologising if the play didn't meet the expectations of those used to entertainment-based modern theatre. A German theatre director responded, saying there was already enough entertainment in other genres like television dramas and movies.

According to Pradit the play has functioned like a work in progress, having gradually developed since its inception. An earlier version provided clear answers for the audience, he said, but a comment from a theatre scholar made him cut the final scene to leave things open-ended. The audience seemed to agree unanimously with this decision.

Later on in the discussion we learned that the events depicted were based on true stories gleaned by Makhampom members first-hand while working in these communities. On hearing that the stories were then adapted to suit the play and audience, the German director suggested that the toning down of real-life events had blunted their power to provoke. Of course, an engaging exchange of opinions followed.

This weekend, "Mahajanok" will be performed in English, with Thai surtitles projected on a screen. For the following two weekends - the last of its run - the performers will shift to their mother tongue, with English subtitles provided. It's good to know that language won't be a barrier in appreciating this small yet polished and sparkling theatrical gem.

Mahajanok Never Say Die runs until August 26 at Makhampom Studio (BTS: Saphan Kwai, behind the police booth at Saphan Kwai intersection; parking at Big C). Showtimes are at 7.30pm Friday to Sunday with 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are Bt200 (Bt150 for students). The small playhouse seats about 40 people, so reservations are highly recommended. Call (084) 360 7013 or see www.makhampom.net.

Pawit  Mahasarinand  

The writer can be reached at pawit.m@chula.ac.th.

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