“It's simple things,” said Manuel Lutgenhorst, artistic director of Puppets Beyond Borders. “In many Asian countries, a man and a woman cannot kiss onstage, but two puppets can. They can do things an actor cannot do. They can criticise the upper class, or the government. It is a very powerful little tool.”
The full power of puppets is on display tonight and tomorrow evening at the Department of Performing Arts in Phnom Penh, where troupes from Cambodia, Germany, France, Myanmar and Thailand will perform 20 to 30 minute plays that showcase the traditional puppets from each culture.
The bands are on a tour of Asia, arriving this week in the Kingdom after playing in Chiang Mai in Thailand. And next week, visas permitting, they’re off to perform in the Union of Myanmar.
Each country involved has a rich tradition of puppetry, though the results are extremely diverse – from the hook-nosed Punch and Judy puppets of Germany, to the ornate and elegant Myanmar marionettes, to the stiff leather stencils of Cambodia. But while the show contains a veritable United Nations of puppets, the theme that unites the show – “home” – originated here in the Kingdom.
“When I came here two months ago, I met a flautist, the only woman I ever spoke to about this project from the Asian side,” said Lutgenhorst. “She happened to mention that even if home is not so great, it's still better than somewhere else. And it hit a chord. I asked the other artists about the themes we were thinking of: I suggested tyranny, indifference, and they were saying ‘yeah, okay okay,’ but then I said ‘home’ and they all smiled.
“One group is performing on becoming homeless, one examines the question ‘where is home?’, another is a story about a man who has a home taken away from him. Every group had its own take on it.”
Puppets Beyond Borders combines the artistic talents of the Htwe Oo group from Myanmar, the Makhampon Theatre Group of Thailand, the Handgemenge group from Germany, Les Remouleurs from France, and several Cambodian graduates from the theatre department of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.
The grand tour is sponsored by the Elysee Fund, and supported by the French Institutes of Cambodia and Myanmar, the Goethe Institute in Jakarta, the German embassy in Yangon, Meta House in Phnom Penh, and Empty Space in Thailand.
In addition to exposing new puppetry traditions to each audience, the initiative also aims to provide a shot in the arm to the artform, which is dwindling in many countries. To achieve this, Lutgenhorst picked the theme of “home” to ensure that the plays are relevant to the crowd.
“If puppetry doesn't have a social significance it will die,” he said. “Puppetry is a political tool. It's for the villagers to get to know what's going on up there. And, if it goes sour, you can hang up the puppet and run. I'm doing it because it's a socio-political tool – it's beautiful as well, but the meaning is communication, information, criticism.”
When Lutgenhorst told the puppetry teams to design a show based on the idea of home, he was aiming for relevance, but even so he was taken aback at just how topical the Khmer team was willing to make their play.
“I'm surprised at how political the Cambodians get,” he said. “The Thais would not do that.”
For the Cambodian play, writer and puppeteer Sinn Samy adapted an ancient Cambodian fable about an unlucky homeowner’s encounter with a wily peasant, and turned it into a thinly veiled jab at the land grabs have plagued rural Cambodians for years.
Titled “A homeless”, the play starts when a vagabond asks a villager to put him up in his home. The villager obliges, and the vagrant immediately starts taking detailed notes of the place. He counts every stair and every lamp, and constructs a flawless mental picture of the design and structure of the home. Soon enough he wears out his welcome, and the homeowner asks him to leave. But not only does the homeless man refuse, he also claims that the house is now his. The family takes the vagrant to the local judge, who subjects the two to a series of questions about the house in order to decide who the real owner is. While the homeless man is able to answer every question in detail, the legitimate homeowner stumbles over every query – he built the house himself, but it’s so familiar to him that he can’t recall the specifics of the layout. The judge rules in favour of the homeless man, but the thwarted villager takes his case to the King. When the puppets trudge up to the palace, the King asks a similar series of questions, with the same result. But then he adds one more: what is under the foundation of the house?
The vagrant is left stuttering, but the true homeowner – who built the house with his own blood, sweat and tears – answers correctly. When he was laying out the foundation, the water in the ground forced him to place bricks underneath the stilts to stabilise the structure. An archeological dig at the home ensues, the bricks are found, and the rightful owner is vindicated.
“This story has never been told as a puppet play before,” said Sinn Samy. “It's been told for centuries, but in theatre and oral stories only. There’s a lot of real life elements, like people who lose their land suddenly. One day, they'll just have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. The message is very easily understood. You don't even need to know the language, because the puppets are so expressive.”
On the road with the puppet show is a film crew that’s documenting the performances to turn into a short film. Cambodian filmmaker Tha Piseth and Myanmar filmmaker Snow were connected in Chiang Mai through Nico Mesterharm, founder of Meta House.
“We are starting a network of Southeast Asian film schools from next year onwards,” said Mesterharm. “We thought that, given we were about to found a network, it would be a nice idea to connect a Burmese and a Cambodian filmmaker in the framework of a project which consists of Burmese and Cambodian puppet plays. I found a young Cambodian filmmaker, who last year won the SEADOCS competition with a film about the environment. I thought he was the right person to do it. I met the Burmese filmmaker in Hanoi. In terms of gender equality it's good to have a male/female team. They made a good match.”
Mesterharm hopes that the film will be completed by the end of December, and will try to get it screened on Cambodian and Myanmar television stations, as well as taking it on the festival circuit.
“They are using the Cambodian and Burmese artists as the protagonists of the film,” he said. “Telling their stories and their experiences and their perceptions, and covering the project as a whole.”