Published on February 11, 2008
Last weekend, Bangkok University's Performing Arts department became the first ever Thai theatre company to perform at Singapore's Esplanade Theatre Studio. This was another first for the young cast led by producer and department chair Wankwan Polachan and playwright/director Punnasak Sukhee, who also thrilled crowds at the International Festival of Independent and Amateur Theatres - Apostrof - held in Prague last summer.
Though the profit from ticket sales at S$30 (Bt650) a pop didn't cover transport and accommodation costs for cast and crew - never mind the rental fee for the venue - "Dancing to Nirvana" is, after all, a university theatre production and one of its main purposes is to offer learning opportunities to students. Besides, it is also a good chance to showcase the current state of Thai performing arts and promote the university's activities to our neighbours.
Landing at Changi Airport, it was gratifying to see that "Nirvana" was the sole entry under the "Performance" listing in the most recent edition of Time Out magazine. However, later in the afternoon, when this reviewer roamed around the Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay, he didn't spot a single poster advertising the event.
Walking into the black box theatre on the fourth floor of this much-praised performing arts centre, the atmosphere was reminiscent of Bangkok University's Black Box Theatre, where "Nirvana" had its short run in September. Multiple levels of ramps and platforms filled more than three quarters of the venue, immediate evidence that the layout was firmly focused on the performance. The producer could easily have squeezed more seating in, meaning more cash from ticket sales. But the decision had been taken to retain the original set design thus making the performers feel more at home.
The 20 accomplished cast members, delivering their lines in Thai and Pali, were every bit as impressive as they has been when "Nirvana" was staged at the Rangsit campus. The harmonious combination of dialogue, action, dance movements, music and lighting still carried the power to make me reconsider the relevance of Buddhist teachings in contemporary society.
Most of the audience members were Singaporean, so after the 75-minute performance, I chatted to some of them about what we had just seen.
Jacquelyn Seetoh, a government official working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was struck by the symbolism of the red dress worn by the lead character named "She".
"A term in Buddhism we use here is 'Hong Chen', literally 'red dust', meaning the cares of the world, the worries, the temptations or the desires. When I saw her struggle and angst in the world, it felt poignant to me. When she cast off her dress, it signified that she had shed all these worries and attained another level of enlightenment."
Daniel Sassoon, a lawyer and lead guitarist with indie rock band Electrico, held a different view.
"I didn't see it that way: I just saw it as going from one state to another. In the beginning, she was supposed to be a prostitute. Removing that dress, for me, meant that she's not going down that road anymore. She was able to finally reach out and touch, when everybody else was trapped in that perception."
During the performance, I noticed Seetoh occasionally flipping through her programme. She explained, "I have some basic understanding of Thai, but when they mentioned words like suffering, nirvana, and ordination [in Pali], I was a bit lost. So, the English translation [printed in the programme] helped a lot in setting up the context and direction of the play as well as in understanding the meanings of the different roles of characters on stage."
Seetoh came across another minor setback. "['Dancing to Nirvana'] was marketed as a dance production, but five minutes into it I realised it was a theatre production, more like a play. After I got over that, I enjoyed it very much. The artistic direction was very strong throughout. Colours were very stark - white, red, and black."
"Some might find it a bit chaotic because there were so many things going on," she continued. "But their were actually three main themes - the struggle to attain nirvana, the perception that it's not easy to do so, and the different directions that characters take - for example, the Mother was confused as to what experience might lead to ultimate peace of mind."
The foreign tongues were also a problem for homemaker Chan Sue-May. "I didn't read the background information for the show and I was a little confused at the beginning because I didn't understand the language. But I enjoyed the movements, actions and the drama. It wasn't too difficult to grasp the major themes. The struggle for enlightenment in the context of Buddhism came through very strongly."
Another local, Jerlyn Soon, said the programme was vital to her enjoyment of such an experimental piece. "There were all sorts of actions and movements happening at the same time. I wasn't sure where to look at first and I was groping for meaning. But when I checked against the translation in the programme, it all flowed smoothly."
The Esplanade: Theatres on the Bay is celebrating the diversity and talents of the Chinese diaspora with the "Huayi: Chinese Festival of Arts" until Sunday. Next month, Harry Connick Jr headlines the Mosaic Music Festival. Visit Esplanade.com.
The writer travelled to Singapore courtesy of Bangkok University's Department of Performing Arts. He can be reached at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.