Picture by Sam Kumar
Date: 5 May 2007
Time: 8 pm
Venue: The Play Den, The Arts House at Old Parliament
By Terence Tan
9 May 2007
We circumnavigate the stage to find a seat upon entering the Play-Den, and see two uniformed guards watching a woman tending to a figure clasped in chains on a decrepit, comfortless spring bed, and a man kneeling in grief, all of them bathed in warm lights that allowed one to think of sunsets. It was a set that portrayed the Tuol Sleng Prison but at the same time reminded the viewer of his/her spectatorship. The visibly modern light sources, the eyes of other audiences, the pre-show announcement in the midst of the scene before us, and the contemporary soundtrack that juxtaposed the contemporarised classical Indian dance afterward, all staged within the former Singapore parliament house, reminded the viewer, finally settled down, how the set is a false mnemonic – that what we would see is a drama produced and watched by a people who did not experience the tragedy of Cambodia, but have come together to reinterpret its terror, and perhaps, its significance.
Bophana is a dance-drama inspired by the tragic love relationship of Hout Bophana and Ly Sitha (renamed Ly Deth here), who were tortured and executed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Wisely, the play stayed away from the pressures of realism and “documentation” in exchange for earnestness and sincerity. It worked, this honest, frill-less, production, for it was an enchanting contrast to Bophana and Ly Deth’s escapism to the classic Ramayana, and a fresh departure from our escapist tendencies as well – a proclivity famously frowned upon by German director and stage theorist Bertolt Brecht. And like his epic theatre, Bophana was also historicised, incorporated with modern and “alienating” elements for the purposes of self-reflection and critical viewing, but by no means ignored emotional and social truth.
Likewise, instead of being lured into a romanticised, cathartic tragedy, the audience is reminded that the typical view of Tuol Sleng and the Khmer Rouge regime is generated by the slew of photographs that showed but one of many possible depictions; “If not for the discovery of the negatives,” one of the guards laments. The screeching, twisted, beauteous digital soundtrack and the multi-coloured spectral of a light design generated an enigmatic, shifting, and modern atmosphere that complimented the play’s subjunctivity. What Bophana deftly presents therefore is Truth in its complicated, multi-faceted nature rather than its singular, homogeneous format. But in the absence of firm, tacit channels, where else can our mental and emotional faculties cling onto apart from the real emotions and behaviour of the actors before us?
Like a layered weave, Bophana succeeds in interlacing thoughts and emotions as a means of supporting each other, but keeping the layers distinct. Feeling was allowed some distance from thought, as curiosities surfaced during the play, creating for the viewer an objective distance from the bared emotions of the actors/characters. As brought up in the post-show dialogue, there were comparable incidents left to be deciphered by the audience, such as the parallel choices of Ly Deth and Rama to leave Bophana and Sita respectively; also Bophana and Sita’s suffering indirectly because of their/her love for Ly Deth and Rama. The episodes of torture and romance passed with neither easy transition nor apparent solution, for not all the dances or character intentions were revealed with clear logical cause and effect, especially if the audience was not familiar with Indian dance or the Ramayana. But this also allowed the scenes to operate at a pure sensory level, of which the ones that generated the most impact were the remorseful singing of Ly Deth at the beginning, the disturbing torture scene (which got this writer writhing in his seat), and the haunting, tearful dance by Ly Deth and Bophana at the end.
In such a fragile project, there were moments that did not seem to play their part as well as others in supporting the dramatic, logical, and emotional tensions. To a less patient or informed audience this might have created an inaccessible alienating effect rather than a reflective one, especially in the early middle portion of the play where leaps from the prison cell into the Ramayana felt somewhat disruptive and dislocated. Still, the raw, emotional performances of Juraimy Abu Bakar and Kavitha Krishnan (who played Ly Deth and Bophana respectively) versus the stone cold gravity maintained by Richard Chua, Sonny Lim, and Priyalatha Arun (the guards and torturer) made up for the lagging parts of the play.
All in all, Bophana was a piece that reflected the postmodern empathy – better informed with more visual information at hand but hyper-realistically distant – alongside the un-empathetic Pol Pot regime. At the same time it revealed characters and actors that resisted their environments with such vigour that I found myself wondering if I was like the prison guards: watching, perhaps empathising, but sadly doing very little in comparison.
To end off, what did the play make of Hout Bophana? Here, she is a memory, an act, a deviant, a lover, an imagination, an artist, an actor, a martyr, and a symbol, absent and present. She is the dream of a woman, slipping from the mind’s grasp, momentarily resurrected, unfortunately forgotten; but how she burned with passion so magnificently.
– end –
Terence Tan is presently taking his Masters in English Literature and
Theatre Studies at NUS and an occasional stage actor. He hopes to
increase his repertoire, so to start off he is undergoing training
with W!ld Rice’s latest division, young & W!LD.