The Story of Your Life – “Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession” Review –(2018/8/28 Taisuke Shimanuki)

Translated from the Japanese by James Koetting

The Story of Your Life

The long, long story begins at waterside and ends there. More specifically, it begins with a transition from a poolside scene in 2016 to a riverside one in 1992, and ends at a scene on Rama VIII Bridge over the Chao Phraya River on October 13, 2016. While taking about four hours to tell a tale spanning this period of roughly a quarter of a century, “Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession” begins and ends with exactly the same two actors portraying two couples, i.e., a pair of lovers and a teacher and his student, on the stage. In other words, these two scenes leave a strong impression of cycle as the keynote of this work. What the audience experiences over the four-hour run are several cycles of change undergone by the protagonist Khaosing and the country in which he was born and raised.

This change definitely may not be desirable. Yet it would perhaps be impossible for anyone to escape from this cycle (excluding the use of several tragic methods). This is the kind of story told by “Pratthana.”

This work, which is Toshiki Okada’s latest, is exceptional in the context of his career thus far in several ways. One is the length, as noted above. Another is that it is an adaptation of “Rang Khong Pratthana” (“Silhouette of Desire,” published in 2016 by Juti Press), an autobiographical novel by Uthis Haemamool. It is also the first Okada work to be created in Thailand. But the particularly noteworthy points are as follows.
In addition to the cast of 11 Thai actors and actresses, all members of the creative team are involved in the performance, as if they were also acting in it. They include Yuya Tsukahara, who handles the scenography (meaning apprehension of the situation, place, and scene in terms of color, shape, and space, through the visual and aural senses*); Takuya Matsumi as scenography assistant also in charge of the video (both of these two being members of the troupe contact Gonzo); Masamitsu Araki, who designs the sound; Kyoko Fujitani, in charge of costuming; Pornpan Arayaveerasid performing the lighting design; Wichaya Artamat as assistant director, and Kazushi Ota as stage director. The technical booth is in plain view from the audience seating, and the cast and staff members busily go back and forth across the playground as chora to move the scattered set articles and equipment, and to change clothes.
The sight of a total of just under 20 people moving in all directions across the stage is something not seen in Okada’s previous works. As compared to his other plays over the last few years, which generally revolve around from two to four actors (and actresses) and require a high degree of concentration on the part of the audience, it makes one conscious of a certain desultory character. “Wakatta-san no Kukki” (first performed in 2016), for which Teppei Kaneuji served as scenographer, comes close to it. Whereas “Wakatta-san” treats sundry, non-living articles as devices for driving the imagination, “Pratthana” uses the bodies and gestures of the cast and staff as “art” for the imagination. It is, of course, impossible to completely control living and breathing human beings, and the duration of four hours tires the actors and deprives them of their caution. But at the same time, the resulting prolixity and discursiveness transform the black-box space into a street in overcrowded Bangkok.

The street image undoubtedly caused the Bangkok audiences to recall the frequent demonstrations in Thailand beginning in the first half of the 20th century and the military coups d’etat that arose to suppress them. Following the revolution that took place in 1932 and ushered in a constitutional monarchy, Thailand has experienced coups at a rate of about one every ten years. Following the coup of 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra, a former businessman who was elected prime minister, was forced out of office because of opposition to his radical administrative and economic reform, strife intensified mainly due to the confrontation between the Thaksin supporters, who wore red shirts (red standing for Thaksin), and the yellow-shirted royalists. The country became mired down in political discord, and in 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) headed by the army commander Prayut Chanocha (the current prime minister) declared martial law, suspended the constitution, and succeeded in seizing absolute power. This is where the situation stands today. Most of these coups and demonstrations took place on the streets of Bangkok. Memories of the massive suppression in 2010 along Rama I Road in front of the huge shopping mall Siam situated slightly to the north of Chulalongkorn University, which was the venue for the staging of “Pratthana,” surely remain vivid in the minds of the people of Bangkok.

In “Pratthana,” emphasis falls on the Black May violence in 1992, the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin, the violent suppression of a demonstration in 2010 that left nearly 100 dead in central Bangkok, and the 2014 coup. On streets whose air is charged with passion seeking social change, people can sense how an individual “I” becomes encompassed in the “we” of a group. The knowledge of this sort of feeling of omnipotence (and resignation when hopes are dashed) is by no means confined to the people of Thailand. In Japan, for example, people were again made aware of it particularly in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake that struck in 2011. The diverse intentions embraced by those who participated in protests against the Abe administration, nuclear power, war, and/or discrimination against minorities became a wave of people numbering in the tens of thousands and generated a massive movement.

Looking back at this period, it could be said that Okada has consistently depicted “us” in his works since the 2011 disaster. If the disparate state of the isolated “I’s” who did not readily come together was his concern before the disaster, his subsequent works have shown an interest in the particulars of the “we” sharing a certain cultural and social foundation. These may be exemplified by “Current Location” (2012), which portrayed women living in a certain local area, and “Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich” (2014), which depicted belief rooted in the closed space of a convenience store.
These creations also leaned toward tying in, in a critical manner, the need for ties and a sense of community that was often talked about in Japan after the disaster, and even interest in cultural and customary practices with ancient roots, such as Bon dancing and traditional arts, that received new emphasis then. But with “Pratthana,” the “we” framework has been carefully avoided. This seems to be a very momentous change.
Although it is adapted from an autobiographical novel, the subject used in much of the narration is not “I” but “you.” A single actor plays the narrator, who exists only in the narration, and sometimes addresses the actor playing the protagonist as “you.” Take the following scene, for instance.

“Do you remember what kind of person you were in 2001? When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had just taken this country over as its new father. When the government paid up the loans from the IMF in full ahead of schedule, and the national healthcare program and 30-baht healthcare scheme were instated.
Back then you were possessed by savagery.
You were working as a script supervisor for a film. On set you checked continuity from scene to scene, like the director’s second pair of eyes. The assistant director’s chair was grabbed by a woman who had just graduated from a New York film school. A US “returnee” from a wealthy family. Everyone called her “Fa” (meaning “sky”).
(Excerpted from the start of Scene 1, Act 2)

The action then moves to dialogue between the protagonist Khaosing and Fa. In “Pratthana,” the actors who speak and those who respond are strictly fixed in each scene, but when the word “you” is used, it seems unclear exactly to whom it is referring (naturally, the script was deliberately designed this way). The actors do not speak to any particular one of the over ten actors and staff positioned at various places on the stage; instead, they babble on while constantly wrapping their utterances in vagueness, as if exhaling clouds or puffs of breath to float in the air of the space. The impression of haziness may be heightened by the sound of Thai as it is unfamiliar to Japanese ears, but their speech, for which they sometimes switch to a small microphone or mobile speaker, often makes the locus of the principal = “I” delivering the lines unclear to the audience.

Because of this complicated spatial and acoustic direction, the four-hour presentation of “Pratthana” may change into a long journey in search of the self. Khaosing wanders around the streets of Bangkok looking for the identity and whereabouts of his vague “I.” But the more he is assumed to be “you” by someone else, the more he loses the outline of “I.” Nevertheless, he cannot bear to merge and be assimilated into the movement of the “we” bent on turning Bangkok upside down. He was also an art student, and the only thing he can do is objectify the “I” as “you” and sketch it, as if creating a self portrait.
According to Uthis, the “rang” in the title “Rang Khong Pratthana” is Thai for “sketch” or “scribble” and “body.” The latter meaning includes the body as a soulless vessel, that is, a corpse.

A stream of coups. A succession of happy loves and sad partings. DIY set design using things like a belt conveyor.

While these are also key elements underscoring the cyclic nature of “Pratthana,” I would like to make some final comments on a scene of resonation with the “I” shaped by objectification based on “you.” It is the scene set in Khaosing’s high school days, which was given particularly high marks in the Thai performance as well. I felt deep emotion while viewing it, reflecting that, in Thailand too, boys in high school have the same kind of silly dreams as we did. In it, some silly behavior eventually helps the protagonist transcend his own room and the whole universe, and leads to nirvana. It struck me as the sole scene in the entire play that depicts absolute happiness. This is because, like a snake who devours his own tail and finally disappears, Khaosing is freed from his own desire, the necessity of life, and the inevitability of death, and does not need any other existence at that time.
The story of Khaosing, which comes to a conclusion in a manner mimicking the opening scene, could definitely be likened to a spiral of cyclic motion. But on October 13, 2016, he is a person completely different from the days of his youth. Within the spiral of the progressive view of history holding that people constantly progress and society becomes better, the “you” has suffered terrible wounds and is physically and mentally exhausted. This circumstance is undoubtedly not confined to Khaosing, but also facing many people living in Bangkok today. We who live in today’s Japan should surely be able to get the same kind of feeling from this work.
“Pratthana” is Story of Your Life.

Text:Taisuke Shimanuki

*Source: http://itarusugiyama.blogspot.com/2017/02/blog-post_15.html (“Senographic Art” Itaru Sugiyama)