The Khmer Rouge bursts on the stage shooting and beating people. They grab a woman's
baby and dash it against a wall. The woman begins to wail and a ripple of laughter
passes through the audience.
Watching the National Theater of Cambodia's play The Life of the Nation of Kampuchea
, at the Tonle Bassac Theater on Independence Day, must have been a cathartic experience
for many in the audience.
Their laughter was like a purging of emotions, an essential part of the theatrical
process, making the action even more palatable.
The play tells the history of Cambodia, portraying the Kings, the French protectorate,
the Sihanouk years, and then war, the Pol Pot regime and, eventually, the arrival
of UNTAC and the crowning of the King.
The play is a tour de force, not only for its dramatic content but because it is
"At night I was writing it, and by day directing it," said Pich Tum Kravel,
director, writer and former actor, celebrated for his productions of the classical
Reamker, the Khmer Ramayana.
He uses the classical tradition of stylized movements and gestures to the accompaniment
of music and songs. Events are narrated - or, rather, screeched headachingly - by
a man and woman in the orchestra pit.
By turns amusing, beautiful and tragic, the story unfolds with the aid of projection-screens
beside the stage showing photographs and historic film footage.
The cast - including dancers from the National Troupe, students from the circus and
from the School of Fine Arts - leap across the stage in brilliantly-colored costumes.
They dance disco-style during the Lon Nol years while a transparent curtain falls
and the horrors of war, which they ignore, are acted out.
The gaiety and music cease as the stage darkens. The Khmer Rouge take over and the
actors fall under the blows of bayonets into mass graves.
The actress playing the wailing woman, Chhim Vatey, wept during rehearsals.
"It's difficult because it is so realistic, it touches everyone," admitted
Pich Tum Kravel, who also suffered under Pol Pot.
Like many artists, he expresses political statements through his work.
"We are trying to help re-establish peace after 23 years of war. It destroyed
all morality and now we are trying to rebuild that," he said.
Art, together with religion, are ways of overcoming the barbarity, he says
After tragedy, the play expresses hope and joy with brightly-clad workers in paddy
fields amid bales of harvested rice, a radiant effect of bucolic happiness.
For the finale, each actor holds a lighted candle while the dancers perform their
Guests of honor, Prince Ranariddh and Princess Marie, joined in the celebration on-stage.
Ninety percent of the National Theater's actors and dancers were massacred during
the Pol Pot years.
Among the survivors is Pich Tum Kravel. Born in 1943, he trained as an actor and
choreographer and appeared on stage and television.
In 1975 he hid the theater's shadow puppets and escaped across the Mekong into the
forests of Kompong Cham.
When he returned in 1979, the theater was ruined, musical instruments were filled
with pigfood, costumes had been thrown into paddy fields and manuscripts burned.
Together with Chheng Phon, then Minister of Culture, Pich Tum Kravel worked feverishly
to save what he could before it totally disappeared.
Khmer culture is essentially oral, handed down from master to pupil. Together with
a few survivors and remnants of old recordings, he has tried to reconstitute the
traditions of masked theater (khon khol'), the shadow puppets and, one by one, recall
the 4,500 gestures of classical dance.
Today, 200 theatrical groups exist throughout the country. Pich Tum Kravel wants
to research the oral traditions of minorities and record dances, music and poetry.
"We must rediscover our national identity," he declares, hoping also to
counteract the deleterious effects of videos on young people. "They will completely
lose touch with their ancestral culture."
Maintained by the Department of Arts and Spectacles, the theater lacks funds to put
on more shows.
Recently, however, they were guests of the Festival de Francophonie and performing
the Reamker visited France and Mauritius on a triumphant tour.