Taking a bow
The Nation's theatre critic pulls back the curtains on Bangkok's stages
Published on December 27, 2007
While there has been no shortage of stage productions this year, the most hyped theatre news of 2007 was without doubt the opening in May of Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre on Bangkok's Ratchadaphisek Road. This 1,450-seat proscenium playhouse was specifically built for musical theatre productions and is equipped to Broadway standards.
House company Scenario has so far produced four styles of commercial theatre productions at its new premises, starting with a new musical adaptation of popular novel "Fah Charod Sai". This was followed by MR Kukrit Pramoj's "Luk Khun Luang", which was revamped with irrelevant modern jokes and a TV sitcom tempo that didn't work effectively on stage.
Later, the melodramatic musical "Banlang Mek" made a return. With specially added lines, musical numbers, and a love scene for Sukrit "Bie The Star" Visetkaew, many critics and audience members dubbed it "Banlang Bie". Scenario also shared the financial burden with BEC Tero to import "Cats the Musical", an Australian-made production originally created for tours to rural cities in China and South Korea.
Thanks to an advertising budget that runs into millions of baht, Bangkok's streets, for the first time ever, have been filled with posters and billboards about their productions, and Scenario's TV programmes have also been used to plug the musicals since the opening of Rachadalai.
Although most have been commercially successful, many critics and scholars have questioned the quality of these star-studded productions, as well as their contribution to the development of contemporary Thai theatre.
The venue has also been rented out to other companies who share a similar marketing vision. However, mainly due to the creative team's lack of experience in theatre, Work Point Entertainment's comedy "Chai Klang" received the year's worst reviews from the press.
This doesn't mean that commercial theatre productions are without value. Despite some technical flaws, the result mainly of the restrictions in the design of their cinema-cum-playhouse Bangkok Theatre at Metropolis, Dream Box's revival of "Koo Kam the Musical" more than merited the praise it received and was by far the best musical production of the year.
It is evident here that as a playhouse is neither a tourist attraction nor an amusement park ride, the artistic and marketing minds of the people behind it - the software - are much more important than the physical structure - the hardware.
That's why most Thai playgoers are probably looking forward to Dream Box's upcoming musical productions of "Mae Nak" and "Sam Kloe" and the sequel of one of their best plays "Tuen Tuek" with much more enthusiasm than Scenario's stage version of TV sitcom "Bang Rak Soi 9" and a new musical adaptation of another famous novel "Khang Lang Phap", which features, not surprisingly, Bie in the starring role.
If we can watch our favourite TV comedians close-up for free at home, why would we want to cough up a few thousand baht to drive through the traffic and see them live from a distance of 20 metres? Perhaps Broadway producers have already realised this and that's why there are no such shows as "Friends on Broadway" and "Seinfeld on Stage".
Despite much less coverage by the mass media, the opening of two new small theatre venues - the 60-seat Makhampom Studio at the Saphan Kwai intersection and the 40-seat Crescent Moon Space at the Pridi Bhanomyong Institute in Soi Thonglor - played significant roles in the development of new and the refinement of old productions. While, on average, a few productions by various troupes were presented at the former almost every month, the latter seemed to disappear from the spotlight after opening with "Women in the Moon: A Women Playwrights and Directors Festival".
And partly because of these new venues, Bangkok Theatre Festival 2007, the most significant theatre event of the year, took a new direction and became a city-wide event, with the hub remaining the Santi Chaiprakarn park in Bang Lamphu.
The country's largest showcase gave birth to many critically acclaimed productions, most of which will deservedly have an after-life as they're scheduled for future engagements. Notable were "Gi(Ant)", a physical theatre collaboration of Theatre 8X8 and Babymime; Damkerng Thitapiyasak's hilarious adaptation of contemporary German satire "Push Up 1 to 3"; Moradok Mai's engaging drama "The Masturbator"; and the student production "The Tragedy of Bellies".
In addition, the three-week festival hosted revivals of such memorable plays as Theatre 8X8's "Where Should I Lay My Soul?" and Crescent Moon Theatre's "Bitter Love". Some skilful thespians even performed in more than one production during the Bangkok gathering.
Even with the addition of three venues, one of the major obstacles for Thai theatre remains the lack of a medium-sized purpose-built playhouse. There is nothing yet that fits the bill of an acoustically sound auditorium seating 200 to 400 people that can accommodate both smaller-scaled musicals - yes, musicals do not need to be grand - and spoken plays without the use of microphones. Such a place would enable many artists to create more works and earn a reasonable income, and allow audiences to enjoy an improved theatregoing experience for less expensive tickets while being seated closer to the performance.
Also absent from the scene is the kind of arts centre that has various flexible spaces for different genres of arts under one roof, hence promoting interdisciplinary collaborations of artists, a strong current trend in contemporary arts. Hopefully, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, and the Arts Centre at Thailand Cultural Centre - both under construction - will provide solutions to these problems soon. Of course, the management of these venues will require appropriate artistic and marketing visions.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th