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A Review of “Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession” written by Atsushi Sasaki

Theater of Geo-bodies

– Watching Toshiki Okada’s “Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession” –

Atsushi Sasaki

Translated from the Japanese by James Koetting

 

Stage photo from “Pratthana-A Portrait of Possession” world premiere

Last August 22, I saw the world premiere of Toshiki Okada’s new theatrical work “Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession” in Bangkok, Thailand. This work rested on a joint project between precog, which handles the productions of chelfitsch, the theatrical company led by Okada, and the Japan Foundation Asia Center, and is an adaptation of a novel titled “Rang Khong Pratthana” (“Silhouette of Desire”) by Uthis Haemamool, the prominent Thai author. This novel is currently being translated into Japanese by Sho Fukutomi, who was involved in all aspects of Okada’s authorship of the script and the production of the Japanese subtitles for the play (the translation is slated for publication in 2019).

While I have not read the novel, I would like to first make some comments on Uthis. He was born in 1975, and is a central figure on the literary scene in Thailand today in terms of international repute and popularity, together with Prabda Yoon, who has garnered popularity in Japan, too, as the author of several works that have been translated into Japanese, including “Counting the Inside of the Mirror” and “Panda,” and the co-author of the screenplay for “Last Life in the Universe” starring Tadanobu Asano. (A translation by Sho Fukutomi of a full-length essay by Prabda titled “Wake up New” is currently being published in serial form in the magazine “Genron.”) Published in 2009, his novel “Lap Lae, Kaeng Khoi” (“The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi”) preceded “Silhouette,” which was published in 2017, took the Southeast Asian Writers Award (S.E.A. Write Award) regarded as the Thai version of Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and was also translated into English. After returning from Thailand, I ordered a paperback copy of it, but it is a fairly long book with over 500 pages, and I did not finish it.

Left: cover of original novel “Silhouette of Desire” by Uthis Haemamool, Right: “Sketches of Desire” by Uthis Haemamool

Uthis has come to Japan several times. He wrote the short story “Kyoto: Hidden Sense” based on his experiences when he visited that city in 2013. This work was published by Little Press in a trilingual edition containing the original Thai with Japanese and English translations. I picked up at copy at the theater where “Pratthana” was staged. The story revolves around a Thai author reminiscent of Uthis himself who by chance makes the acquaintance of a Japanese youth in Kyoto. The two share an emotion for each other that surpasses like-minded friendship and borders on homosexual love. The story ends with the author unable to be reunited with the youth, who hailed from Japan’s Tohoku region, in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck the next year. In the text, first-person narrative is mingled with third-person narrative. The story may have influenced the distinctive policy Okada adopted for “Pratthana,” his adaptation of “Silhouette,” as I will describe below. The name of the narrator = protagonist is the same as in “Silhouette,” and both works are marked by adoption of a rocky relationship with the father as one of the themes. It can be seen that Uthis is an author who utilizes a kind of autobiographical framework in weaving his fictional tales.

“Pratthana” was staged in Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts, within the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University, an elite school sometimes referred to as Thailand’s University of Tokyo. While it is a facility within a university, the theater has a capacity of more than 100 seats, and its stage equipment etc. could bear comparison with that of small playhouses in Japan. On the evening of August 22, in the middle of final checks before the first performance, I went backstage and spoke a while with Okada. He had been staying in Thailand for a rather long time for this project, and said he had become able to read a little Thai, whose script is notoriously difficult for many learners. He told me that one book was extremely helpful to him in creating this work. It was “Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation,” by Thongchai Winichakul. Thongchai was in the vanguard of anti-government demonstrations as a student of Thammasat University during the massacre that occurred on its campus on October 6, 1976. He was arrested and jailed in the wake of the subsequent military coup. After his release due to a pardon two years later, he went back to school, pursued studies in Australia, and was eventually awarded a doctoral degree. When “Siam Mapped” was published, he was serving as a professor in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin. While drawing on works such as Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” and Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” “Siam Mapped” is an examination of “the concept of nation (nationhood)” that arose and began to function in the process whereby Siam became the Kingdom of Thailand. In his introduction, Thongchai states: “This book is not another study of nation building, state formation, or the origin of a nation. It is not a political or economic history of the transition from a premodern empire to a modern nation-state. It is a history of identification of nationhood: what constitutes the presence of Thai nationhood and how has (sic) an identity of it been created.” The book was first published in 1994, and was praised by Anderson.

The key idea proposed by Thongchai in “Siam Mapped” is the “geo-body.” As suggested by its title, the book examines the creation and establishment of the Thai geo-body by going over the history of its mapping from the age when it was called “Siam,” and investigates the historical changes over this period.

“Geographically speaking, the geo-body of a nation occupies a certain portion of the earth’s surface which is objectively identifiable. It appears to be concrete to the eyes as if its existence does not depend on any act of imagining. That, of course, is not the case. The geo-body of a nation is merely an effect of modern geographical discourse whose prime technology is a map. To a considerable extent, the knowledge about the Siamese nationhood has been created by our conception of Siam-on-the-map, emerging from maps and existing nowhere apart from the map” (from “Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation,” Thongchai Winichakul, University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

The term “geo-body” was coined by Thongchai, who writes: “There are innumerable concepts, practices, and institutions related to it or working within the provision and limitation of a nation’s geo-body….It is a component of the life of a nation. It is a source of pride, loyalty, love, passion, bias, hatred, reason, unreason. It also generates many other conceptions and practices about nationhood as it combines with other elements of nationhood” (ibid.). Interested readers are recommended to see the book for more details. For my purpose here, needless to say, the important thing is that Okada transferred the geo-body into a “theater-body.”

“Pratthana” is the Thai word for “desire.” The protagonist of the play is Khaosing, a painter who lives in Bangkok. The story begins in 1992, when he was 17, and ends on October 13, 2016, which saw the demise of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who had reigned for a remarkable 70 years. Thailand is a kingdom. Even today, speech and acts deemed critical of the royal family are strictly forbidden, and violation of this prohibition can result in arrest and felony charges for lese-majesty. King Bhumibol acceded to the throne at age 18 in 1946, the year after the end of World War Two, and hammered out a policy of democracy under monarchy (Thai-style democracy). He often rescued the country from political crises of both domestic and foreign causes, but behind the scenes lay bloody power struggles with a complicated interplay of motives and designs among the royal family, politicians, military, and foreign governments. (Details on this subject can be found in “The Royal Family and Lese-Majesty – King Bhumibol and Turmoil in Thailand,”* by Atsushi Iwasa.) “Pratthana” overlays a depiction of the highly turbulent history of Thailand in recent decades on a portrait of the painter Khaosing, who lives his life while drowning in desire and hardship at the crossroads of art, sex, and politics. The play, inclusive of the intermission, lasts for all of four hours. It is definitely the longest of Okada’s plays. However, “Silhouette,” on which it is based, is also a fairly long novel, and the first draft of the play reportedly ran for a few hours more (!). Because I have not read “Silhouette,” I cannot say for sure, but I think that Okada cut the length to four hours only after editing and compressing the novel’s narrative. He also incorporated several bold theatrical ideas in the process. At this point, I would like to briefly note the features of “Pratthana.”

Stage photo from “Pratthana-A Portrait of Possession” world premiere

In the opening scene, we are beside a swimming pool, which is shown only by a blue-colored fluorescent light cable running diagonally across the stage floor. A lad is at poolside in the middle of the night. On the stage is a digital liquid-crystal box displaying the year in the Western calendar and the Thai solar calendar: 2016 (2559). But soon afterward, the numbers change: 1992 (2535). Although it is hard to understand at first sight unless the script is in hand, the former is when Khaosing meets the boy Waree by a pool, and the latter, when he as a youth converses with his art teacher by the river. The two scenes are almost 25 years apart, but are seamlessly joined. As noted above, the time in the play begins in 1992 and ends in 2016, and Okada apparently decided to present its temporal framework first. The play then proceeds to tell the overlapping histories of the painter and the country, which are colored by several dramatic events, while occasionally returning to 2016 (the present?), as if sporadically remembering to do so. It is performed by 11 Thai actors and actresses who were chosen mainly through auditions. But there was no casting in the sense of assigning the role of Khaosing, for example, to a single member. This may be the first rule of the methodological strategy chosen by Okada for this work; from beginning to end, all eleven cast members are basically on the stage, and each may become Khaosing, a different character, or the narrator, depending on the scene.

I have the fourth draft (whether it is the final one or not, I do not know) of the script by Okada, and it contains a mixture of notation. In some parts, the dialogue is written after notation of the character’s name as is ordinarily done, but in others, there is no notation of the character’s name, and in yet others, the script corresponds to the text of narrative from the novel (it is not stage directions). There is no one-to-one correspondence between the actors and characters. As if taking on different roles, one after the other, the actors portray several characters in turn, and sometimes become a nameless narrator. That’s right — those familiar with chelfitsch will recognize that it applies the peculiar style adopted for “Five Days in March.” I once made a fairly in-depth dissection of Okada’s plays and novels. More specifically, in “A Novel on the stage,” Chapter 4 of Part 1 in “For a New Novel,” I cited the approach of having a plural number of actors doubling as narrator as an element even more noteworthy than the separation and interchange of actors and roles. But in “Five Days,” almost all of the lines spoken by the characters rest on hearsay, and there is consequently no “meta-narrator” who stands outside the story (although appearing on the stage). (This is precisely the factor which made that work radical.) In “Pratthana,” the actors freely become meta-narrators. I believe Okada uses the text of “Silhouette” for that of the narration, and the inclusion of this sort of narrator is presumably bound up with the semi-autobiographical (anti-autobiographical?) nature of the story. The narration of “Pratthana” is not a simple recounting or situational explanation, but an extremely rhetorical, poetic text.

That is not all. This on-stage narrator addresses Khaosing in the second person, as exemplified by the following: “You too were once the one gazed upon. You were 17. You dove into the river and swam underwater, then returned to the bank, lay down, and spread your limbs out on the ground, to let the patches of light in different shapes filtering through the leaves overhead pleasantly warm and dry your skin. You had an erection. At that age, even the sun stroking your thighs with its warmth was enough to arouse you.” This may appear to be an all-too-novelistic narration, and I initially thought so as well. In reality, however, the narrator in “Silhouette” does not speak in the second person. This was newly added by Okada in adapting Uthis’s novel. By selecting narration in the second person, which is extremely rare in theater (and novels), Okada succeeds in instilling the “Pratthana” story with a certain intimacy. Whoever it may be that is addressing Khaosing in the second person (which remains unclear to the end), that person knows him better than anyone else. Or rather, the one so addressing him is, of course, Khaosing himself, and simultaneously Uthis, and Okada hidden in Uthis’s shadow.

There’s more. As this complicated story unfolds on the stage, what the actors who are neither characters appearing in the particular scene or the narrator do is watch the play in an arc at a distance. In short, they are spectators. This, too, resembles a technique Okada tried in another chelfitsch opus, “Current Location.” In that piece, while actresses who talk about and act out the story of characters they are playing in somewhat of a monologue fashion, other actresses who do not have a role in the particular scene stand and stare at them. “Pratthana,” nevertheless, lacks the tranquility and tension of “Current Location,” and the actors who are spectators at these times look relaxed and even seem amused by the play being performed before their eyes. Why did Okada adopt this style? To explore this question, I must first touch upon a further peculiarity of this play.

 

Stage photo from “Pratthana-A Portrait of Possession” world premiere

I noted above that the 11 members of the cast are on the stage throughout Pratthana, but they are not the only ones there. Other people who would work behind the scenes as technical staff in conventional plays frequently come on stage to move or install sets and equipment in this one. They include Yuya Tsukahara of contact Gonzo, who is credited for the scenography (as will be described below, his contribution is not confined to this role); Takuya Matsumi of contact Gonzo, who is credited for scenography assistance and video; Masamitsu Araki, who is active as a sound artist himself and handled the sound; and Pornpan Arayaveerasid, who also participated in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Fever Room” and was in charge of the lighting. They therefore make the scene-changing activity clearly visible to the audience. Coupled with the presence of other actors as spectators whose characters are not involved in the scene in question, this indicates that Okada is staging this work as a kind of play within a play. In other words, “Pratthana” is not simply a theatrical adaptation of the novel by Uthis; it is “a play about a theatrical adaptation of the novel by Uthis.”

It is true that, in “Current Location” as well, certain scenes are apparently performed as plays within a play. This has to do with that play’s underlying concept as a science-fiction-type allegory inspired by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the ensuing events, and poses the question of how people will act with the approach of the end of the world. To show that there is no definite reply to this question, Okada selected the play-within-a-play format in order to deliberately make it impossible to determine what is reality and what isn’t. In the case of “Pratthana,” he is apparently dealing in a more straightforward manner with the problem of “theater.” In short, the play seems to be questioning the very creation of some fiction on the stage, and the need for the bodily presence of actors and actresses to exercise their talents and for the operation of a variety of other factors for this purpose. We who watch “Pratthana” are therefore witnessing whether or not the “Performance of ‘Pratthana'” by the cast and staff under the overall direction of Okada will be a success, almost as if simultaneously watching the actual play and a documentary about it. As a result, the story = history of Khaosing and Thailand told or portrayed in “Pratthana” hits us as being all the more vivid and graphic.

Although “scenography” translates as “stage art” in Japanese, “Pratthana” has an essentially bare stage. Depending on the scene, members of the staff and cast bring out, set up, and subsequently remove various lights and speakers, a big stepladder, a tent of the sort used for camping, a belt conveyor, or other objects. I presume that, together with Okada, Tsukahara of contact Gonzo was involved in all of the planning and programming for the placement of these objects and the timing for bringing them on stage and taking them off. I have heard that the tent belongs to him, and the belt conveyor is a familiar fixture in recent works by Gonzo. The term “scenography” fits, as the task is description (“graphy”) of the scene.

Stage photo from “Pratthana-A Portrait of Possession” world premiere

This is not the only thing which Tsukahara’s participation brought to this performance. There are several sex scenes in the play, and each of them turns into a truly Gonzo-like fight in the process. Moreover, the fighting escalates with each repetition, until virtually all members of the cast are involved in what looks like a bizarre collective dance that has them scuffling wildly with each other. To me, it seemed like the ultra-unique choreography of contact Gonzo, but with the addition of the element of eroticism, which is usually absent from their works. I should also note that, before “Pratthana,” Tsukahara appeared in Okada’s “EIZO-Theater.” His appearance there was oddly fresh, as it utterly lacked any Gonzo-like quality; Tsukahara merely stood motionless and delivered lines in a monologue.

I saw “Pratthana” twice, on its first and second days. At the reception after the first performance, Okada cited “Wakatta-san no Kukki” along with “Current Location” as works of his linked with “Pratthana.” “Pratthana” was the first time he took up the challenge of adapting a novel for the theater, and “Wakatta-san,” a play directed to children, is likewise an adaptation of a popular picture book of the same title by Teruo Teramura. As far as I know, there are the only two cases in which he adapted an original literary work for the theater. At first glance, these two look completely unlike each other in respect of the approach to making a story he did not write, that is, “someone else”s story,” into “theater of his own,” but in Okada’s view, they are linked.

The artist Teppei Kaneuji participated in all aspects of “Wakatta-san,” and many of his comical, intriguing “objets” were placed in the theater space. Before that, he took a hand in the scenography for “We Cannot Understand Home Appliances, Nor Can We Each Other,” another Okada play. Following “Wakatta-san,” he began to lean toward theater and performance art, and presented “TOWER,” a performance piece of his own for which Okada assisted with the text. Right from the start, Okada has been a playwright who actively collaborates with artists (including Chiharu Shiota, Tadasu Takamine, and Tsuyoshi Hisakado), but “Wakatta-san” in particular could be termed a play “co-starring” Kaneuji’s works. Similarly, contact Gonzo has lately become the focus of considerable attention in the field of art, and Tsukahara’s (and Matsumi’s) participation in “Pratthana” has a facet that could be regarded as a collaboration between Gonzo and chelfitsch, in my opinion.

Stage photo from “Pratthana-A Portrait of Possession” world premiere

“Pratthana” therefore incorporates a number of innovative theatrical ideas, and while it may be only natural as an Okada creation, the play is not merely a theatrical adaptation of a work by a Thai novelist. The story of the life of the painter Khaosing is clearly and deliberately fragmented. The play presents his experiences and memories as an artist that are mixtures of hope, despair, anguish, and happiness; episodes about his friendships, loves, and sexual encounters permeated with passion and grief; and his complex perception and deep-seated emotion about his unavoidable and ongoing involvement with politics as a Thai national. These components are never integrated into a single coherent portrait; instead, they are related or depicted in this mutually isolated and separated state. After watching the play for its four-hour duration, I was completely bowled over, in spite of the fact that I did not have very much knowledge of Thailand as a country (this was my first visit there) and also knew little about the novelist Uthis, i.e., was a virtually complete “other.”

While I was not moved in an exaggerated, emotional way, I felt Khaosing’s, or rather “your,” hurt and pain exactly as if it were my own in respect of the inevitable confrontation between both the individual and society and the self and state, and the impossibility of avoiding it, although they remained completely unrelated to me. “Pratthana” gets under the skin of a theater-goer who has had no previous connection with Thailand in this way, and that it has this effect may, I believe, be attributed to Okada’s urge to somehow depict the geo-body that is Thailand on the stage.

The geo-body that had been ravaged by history, torn to pieces, and dismembered was reconstituted by all of the real bodies who were on the stage at that time. Indeed, we in the audience, too, may have been a part of this reconstitution.

“Pratthana – A Portrait of Desire” is going to be staged at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in mid December of this year, and a performance in Japan is also tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2019.

* Titles marked with asterisks are tentative translations, as the works are available only in Japanese.

 

This text was written for 2018 Subaru magazine December issue (Shueisha). The original text was published in Japanese.

For details about “Pratthana-A Portrait of Possession” Paris Performance, please refer to Festival d’Automne à Paris webpage.
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