French Cultural Centre’s head says Khmer culture buffs have been packing Chenla Theatre
The audience were constantly caught between being frightened and laughing.
THE play is about to start. "Action!" yells a director from backstage. As he does so, drums roar, smoke hisses its way across the stage, and the narrator appears to begin telling the tale of The Girl Without Hands.
Something, however, is missing. A vital component of any play's performance by normal standards as well; ah yes, an audience!
There is, of course, a reason why no paying customers are here to witness the performance. Tonight, The Girl Without Hands is being acted out in front of television cameras, and nobody wanted to take the risk of audience interference during the recording.
Not that such a thing has occurred during the play's three performances at the Chenla Theatre as part of the Lakhaon Theatre Festival. But Alain Arnaudet, president of the French Cultural Centre who organised the performance in collaboration with Compagnie Parnas, says that, because television can present the play to an otherwise unreachable audience, it must be perfect.
"Unfortunately, there are many complicated aspects to our production, such as sounds and other effects, which make it difficult for the show to travel. There simply aren't enough theatres in Cambodia which are equipped to accommodate us," Alain said
The Girl Without Hands began as a German folk tale, one which was taken up by the Brothers Grimm and given their iconic spin. It is a tale told all over the world, in a variety of guises, and was originally adapted into a play by the French.
Now it has made its Cambodian debut. Local performers and traditional Khmer instruments tell this twisted fairy tale. It is firmly targeted at the local population, and although the story originated in Europe, it perhaps resonates more with contemporary Cambodian society than it ever has in the West. Indeed, Arnaudet describes the reception it was given as "wonderful".
The play tells the tale of a simple miller who is working in the forest near his mill one day when he is approached by an affable stranger. This mysterious visitor offers the miller great wealth in return for everything he finds behind the mill.
Believing there to be nothing more than an old tree behind the mill, the miller quickly accepts the outsider's deal, only to find that, as well as the tree, his daughter is there drying clothes. The wealthy charlatan is then revealed to be the devil, who warns that he will return to collect his prize in three years' time.
All of the actors for this production of The Girl Without Hands were recruited from in and around Cambodia, and their skilful performances masked the fact that they had only one-and-a-half months to learn their lines and rehearse before the first official show.
The play had a three-night run at Chenla Theatre in the past week, from Friday to Sunday, and Alain proudly describes the shows as complete sell-outs every night, estimating that most audiences consisted of up to 95 percent Khmers.
He also observed with glee just how affected the audience seemed to be, particularly by both the scenes of great horror and those of a happier nature.
"The audience were constantly caught somewhere between being frightened and laughing," he claimed. "When the miller cuts his daughter's hands off, I could see the reaction in the crowd; their minds were going 'Oh my god! What's going on?'"
The play lasts around an hour and 15 minutes, and it is expected the filmed production will run to the same length. There are no dates or times confirmed as yet for a television broadcast, although the French company that originated the project, Compagnie Parnas, is planning to release the play in book format in Cambodia. It will be translated into English, French and Khmer, and will also include a copy of the filmed performance on DVD.
Compagnie Parnas is a French drama company that have begun working on productions in Cambodia. It is responsible for choosing the subject material and working on all dramatic aspects of the performance.
The French Cultural Centre, on the other hand, organised the logistical side of the event, such as where and when it would be performed.
The two institutions have worked together before, putting on a play derived from a Cambodian legend called The Male Partridge and the Female
Partridge last year. That, allied with the recent success of The Girl Without Hands, has people over at Parnas scratching their heads, already thinking about next year's production.
Whether the play has its roots in Cambodian or Western culture, next time around, The Girl Without Hands will be certainly a tough act to follow.
In the meantime, those looking for a further theatrical fix can still catch the Lakhaon Theatre Festival's final two productions tonight and tomorrow.
Le Pouvoir du Maitre, or The Power of the Master, is an Opera Bassac which follows a man's murderous escape after he is accused of abusing a young girl. It can be seen tonight at 7pm at Chenla Theatre.
Following that, Ream Eyso et Moni Mekhala, a slice of classical Khmer theatre about the battle between a giant and a water goddess told through dance, will be performed Friday, also at 7pm at Chenla Theatre.