A sustainable extravaganza
The dance theatre spectacle based on His Majesty the King's tale of Phra Mahajanaka returns to Bangkok
Published on December 3, 2007
It premiered in June 2006 at Impact Arena, Muang Thong Thani as part of the celebrations marking the 60th Anniversary of HM the King's accession to the throne and then spent 10 months travelling around the provinces.
Last week, "The Story of Phra Mahajanaka", the dance theatre spectacle on the themes of perseverance and sustainability, returned to Bangkok, this time being performed at Thailand Cultural Centre, as part of the "Por Sor Por Pieng" (literally, "The Year of Sustainability") exhibition.
At the beginning of the 70-minute show, we were informed that the troupe would perform only parts of the story. However, to ensure we understood the whole story, we were treated to a carefully narrated synopsis complete with illustrations projected on the backdrop. Only then did the show kick off.
But wait a minute. Didn't the narration mean we were getting the story twice - or actually one and a half times, as only part of the plot was being performed?
Also, with His Majesty's "The Story of Mahajanaka" being the country's best selling book a few years ago, didn't many, if not most, Thai people already know it by heart? Obviously, the producer thought otherwise.
With major government agencies and private corporations generously donating vast chunks of their annual budgets towards this spectacle - and in the meantime overlooking many other professional theatre productions - admission to these shows was free, meaning anyone could enjoy this dance theatre.
A noble gesture to be sure but one dented after the show: a short curtain call brought a not very enthusiastic applause, as the non-paying members of the audience were mobbed by production staff eager to persuade them to donate Bt80 in exchange for an orange wristband.
Also, just because a show is free and open to all doesn't mean the producers should assume that some audience members might not understand the story and its themes without a synopsis. Despite being presented in a form many may not be familiar with, the entire show is, after all, performed in Thai.
The production's creative team comprises some of the country's best. Veteran playwright and director Punnasuk Sukee's script served the original story well, despite a little more than necessary repetition of the two themes. His staging was ingeniously adapted to fit the proscenium stage and his pacing guaranteed that there were no yawns.
Another two highlights were Bruce Gaston's compelling music composition and musical direction, and Naraphong Charassri's nifty choreography, with both succeeding in blending traditional Thai with modern Western performing arts.
However, the production design by Prayuk Yoothow and Pongthorn Musik and Supatra Kruakrongsuk's lighting design went a little overboard. Although spectacular, the overuse of video images in addition to too much lighting in some scenes made the show more of a visual extravaganza than a dramatic tale of perseverance and sustainability.
After more than 60 shows - and still counting - members of the cast, mostly Bangkok University performing arts students, were still able to deliver their lines with energy and immense enthusiasm. In the lead roles of Phra Mahajanaka and Manee Mekhala respectively, Atsadawut Luangsunthorn and Pijitta Jittapukka were both graceful and impressive.
However, all of this commendable artistic effort was somewhat tainted by the fact that the sound and music of the entire performance was pre-recorded and the cast members were just lip-syncing their lines and musical numbers.
Although this may have ensured a good sound and helped reduce production costs at some upcountry stadiums, many audience members at the Thailand Cultural Centre wondered how much spontaneity could have been added had the show been live.
Another distraction was caused by a new wonder of the digital age. While a public announcement had made it clear flash photography was not allowed, a university student sitting two rows in front of me felt free to take out his digital SLR camera with a very large viewing screen to take photos of his friends in the cast.
After a few minutes of watching both still and moving images, I said to him, as politely as I could, "Excuse me, I think you're disrupting my viewing pleasure. After all, this is a dance theatre, not a concert."
He moved to another seat, thereby disrupting the view of other audience members, who didn't complain. While they don't affect the performers, personal digital cameras and multi-purpose mobile phones are the newest enemies for those who enjoy live performances. Many spectators at the Bangkok Theatre Festival 2007 could be heard complaining about the same problem.
The renowned Mariinsky Ballet perform at Thailand Cultural Centre on Thursday and Saturday at 7:30pm. Tickets range from Bt300 to Bt3,000 at Thaiticketmajor.com. For more information, call (02) 661 6835-7.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.