Universes and refrigerators
A Portuguese drama about connection speaks volumes to Thai audiences
Published on December 27, 2007
Theatre enthusiasts may remember the excerpts of contemporary European plays staged at Thailand Cultural Centre's Small Hall four years ago by some of Bangkok's university theatre troupes. One of the most impressive segments offered was from "Universos e Frigorificos" ("Chakkrawan Lae Tuyen") by young Portuguese playwright Jacinto Lucas Pires.
So the Thai theatre community was delighted - albeit not surprised - when, as part of the celebrations marking 500 years of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Portugal in 2011, Nanmee Books Publications and the Portuguese Embassy, with support from Instituto Camoes-Portugal, published the play's Thai translation by Puchong Dej-akom.
Last Wednesday, Portugal's ambassador Antonio de Faria e Maya presided over the launch of the translation at Patravadi Theatre's Studio 1. He informed the audience that Thai was the first Asian language into which this 1997 play had been translated and later distributed complementary copies of the book to representatives from a number of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration libraries as well as to universities.
At the beginning of this four-act play, an old tramp comes across a young man in a park. The young man, who has lost his memory, and his older companion are later joined by a young woman and a clarinet player.
As the play evolves, the audience comes to realise that the four are able to communicate and connect with more depth than the average family.
At the post-performance discussion titled "Where does your identity lie - a universe or a refrigerator?" the 33-year-old playwright Pires, fresh off his flight from Lisbon, said that he didn't like reading or watching works designed to make him happy, but preferred those that provoked and made him think.
He explained that while working on this play, as well as other on short stories and films, his method was to find the clearest and simplest words to describe the various images he had in his mind. It was only later that he strung them together as part of the structure of the play.
"Writing is easy, everyone can do that," noted Pires. "Cutting it down is harder."
Theatre critic and scholar Rassami Paoluengtong, the mastermind behind the 2003 European Play Festival, noted some similarities in Pires' play to Samuel Beckett's absurdist "Waiting for Godot", a dramatic masterpiece of the last century. As with "Godot", in Pires' work the reader or the audience doesn't really get to know the backgrounds of the characters, and therefore their actions need further analysis and interpretation.
But as Rassami pointed out, "Thai audiences [watching the production four years ago] apparently understood this play much better than [the Thai translation of] 'Godot'. This is probably because contemporary Thailand and Portugal share many similar social issues - the lack of effective communication among people, for example."
Young translator Puchong, who spent a year in Portugal with support from the Portuguese government and swapped such culture-specific context as Portuguese country music for its Thai equivalents, agreed.
"I find Portuguese society very different from that of other European countries. Like Thailand, it's very family-oriented. Many people in their twenties still live with their parents."
When a journalist asked the playwright why one of the main characters has to die at the end, Pires replied that he didn't force this to happen. He had merely examined the character's actions and put him into words. The playwright, just like the reader and the audience, was merely the witness. He also recalled that earlier that day, another journalist had asked him what the play was about. He declined to answer, saying that this kind of question was like asking what his child "was about".
The message was that it's up to us to discover for ourselves meanings in the play by allowing the lines to provoke our thoughts and stir up hidden messages.
The Thai-speaking audience got the chance to do just that on the afternoon of the book launch when three veteran stage thespians - Patravadi Mejudhon, Yanee Tramote and 2007 recipient of Silpathorn Award Nimit Pipitkul - performed a "staged reading" of the play's first scene. With scripts in hand, but with naturalistic acting and full use of stage props, lighting and sound effects, the actors made it evident to all watching that this play is not just for reading, but so stage-worthy that a local theatre troupe should produce it soon.
In the scene, the tramp explains that a refrigerator works a kind of magic that can be scientifically explained and proved - heat can create coldness. Likewise, we discovered that a contemporary Portuguese play can and does speak to a Thai audience.
Nanmee Books has also recently published an original Thai play "Suay Laew Teerak" (literally "You're Lovely, Honey"), the 2002 winner of the Sodsai Award. Even though good plays repay reading as well as watching, the publication of play scripts, both originals and translations, in this country is rare. So this new initiative by a 15-year-old well-established publishing house is truly commendable, as it supports not just insight into modern theatre, but also the development of contemporary Thai theatre in general.
For more information, visit Nanmeebooks.com.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th