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Khmer tale gets French twist

Khmer tale gets French twist


French theatrical director Catherine Marnas uses a two-month residency in Phnom Penh to mount a new production of a classic story


Director Catherine Marnas is mixing local actors and a traditional Khmer tale with French theatrical techniques for a new production.

THE momentous challenge of working with a Cambodian cast to stage a traditional Khmer tale is not lost on French theatrical luminary Catherine Marnas, but she is hoping to successfully combine the two cultures during her stay in Phnom Penh.

Marnas will be in residence at the French Cultural Centre until early October, producing a spectacle to be part of an international theatre festival featuring 12 companies from Cambodia, France, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

"The idea is to take a basic Cambodian story and to combine it with French culture. This story is very, very old, and to mix it with modern theatre will be a shock," Marnas told the Post this week.

She had just come out of an exhausting day of nearly 30 auditions with young Cambodian students and more experienced actors alike, all performing pieces from Sorp Piseth, a traditional Khmer tale named after the lead character.

"The story is like a drama but there are comic scenes too, like a stupid man who can't make fire or boil water. It's physical comedy - his incredible stupidity - which is very international," she said.

Two years ago, Marnas did a similar project in China with Moliére's classic Don Juan, complete with a Chinese cast, using traditional Chinese opera style and opera make-up and costumes.

But the challenge here is that the culture and traditions are very different, and Marnas said she's "taking Khmer culture and French culture and trying to make this third thing."

"There was no written text, so every person acts it out differently," she said.

Bun Noch, who interprets between the Khmer actors and Marnas, affirmed that Sorp Piseth was a story that has been passed down orally but was now part of the school curriculum.

Marnas added that the underlying story will stay the same, but some changes would be made that she hoped the audience would accept.

"I think the most important thing in theatre is an open audience. I will be very happy if more open-minded people came to see the play," she said.

Marnas said auditions were to continue throughout the week.

"At the end of today, there were younger people, most with no experience. But sometimes, those with no experience can adapt really well," she explained. "But I don't like to choose people day by day because auditions can be cruel."

Instead, all actors will spend a week studying theatre techniques and styles with Marnas.

"At the end of the week, I'll choose maybe about five for the play. But, even if they leave, they will have learned something."

The first performance is slated for October 3, with two shows in Phnom Penh and one in Siem Reap, leaving the crew about six weeks to rehearse.

The idea, said Marnas, would be to eventually make the project autonomous, so it could travel around Cambodia in 2009 without her direction.

Meanwhile, Marnas will be holding a talk on contemporary theatre at the French Cultural Centre on Thursday, August 28, at 6:30pm.


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