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Re-discovering a national identity

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

so up-to-date.

"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

exquisite movements.

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.



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