All types of Cambodian theatre tell stories with numerous characters: The heroes and heroines, supporting players, giants and monsters and talking monkeys.
All of the characters have their own distinct voices and some performers specialize in certain types of characters. At the same time, in some forms the performances are narrated by a female performer between scenes in order to help speed the action along in a style called “sing alone, dance alone”.
Lakhon Pol Srey, or theatre spoken by women, also called Kien Svay Krao Lakhon, is a form of classical theatre that is similar in some ways to the Royal Ballet – including the music and costumes to some extent.
But in this theatre, female performers play all of the roles and even the male parts are played by women. It was given its name by Professor Chen Neak.
Nam Narim, coordinator of the Classical Artists Group and deputy director of the Department of Arts and Performing Arts of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said that this form of theatre is also called Kien Svay Krao because it began at the Kien Svay Krao pagoda.
“This form of theatre is the only one where we can truly say it is unique to Cambodia rather than being regional. It has a long history with unclear origins. Kien Svay Krao Lakhon is different from the others, but it uses the traditional dance as the foundation. But more importantly, it differs from other forms of traditional theatre and dance when it comes to singing and dancing, as well as recitation and performance by only women and no men,” she said.
In the old days, Kien Svay Krao Lakhon performances were conducted twice per year: Once before the Khmer New Year and once before the ceremony for Loeurng Lorkta or offering to the spirits. It was believed that if that performance is missed in any year the chief monk of Kien Svay Krao pagoda may become very ill.
The date when this form of theatre originated and how it developed is still unclear, according to a book about the theatre written by Professor Chen Neak in 2003.
What remains of the historical record shows that this form of theatre originated in the Longvek period during the reign of King Barum Khatey Yearm Moha Chan Reachea (1516-1566) and of King Srey Suryaporn (1603-1618) who reigned at Koh Slaket Palace (presently called Koh Nora) in Lvea Em district of Kandal province.
Another ruler mentioned is the King Samphearak Penh Tour (1629-1634) who originally lived in the old capital of Udong before moving to the Koh Khlok Palace (now called Koh Oknha Tey).
Unfortunately, the complete history and record of many of Cambodia’s traditions were lost when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power and tried to reset Cambodia to “year zero” by destroying all of its history and culture, which included the burning of books and documents and the murder of many of the educated and cultured people who were familiar with the Kingdom’s history and traditions.
In 1999, the public had the opportunity to see the Kien Svay Krao Lakhon performed once again at the Chaktomuk Theater after a new production of it was put together by a group of fewer than 10 surviving elders who could remember its details between them.
The group of senior citizens – all of them in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s – began compiling what they knew about this form of lakhon in 1998. Sadly, many members of the original group passed away before getting an opportunity to see its full return.
According to Professor Chen Neak’s book, the seven elders who re-established this lakhon form were: Nou Chea (music teacher), Chea Muth (supporting actress), Kin Yin (giant and monkey actress), Meas Ho (actress), Sun Yeurn (actress), Nam Yeurn (actress) and Ou Norm (giant actress).
In this form of theatre all of the performers are women, even those playing male characters or giants, and so the members of this group of seniors were also all women as well.
Today the only teachers of this form of theatre that remain are three elderly women from that group who are trying to impart it to the next generation before they too pass away.
Pum Sok Khim, 44, a lead actress with the Kien Svay Krao Lakhon – a troupe that currently has 30 members – said that Chea Muth, 94, provided the singers with the lyrics and instructed the musicians on the score that accompanies the play.
She also added that the other elders that are still with us from that original group are Kin Yin at 85 years old and Ou Norm, who is 94 years old.
Sok Khim, who was trained by the elders, told The Post: “In ancient times, all of this was documented in scrolls and books but they were lost due to the war and the Pol Pot years, so this group of old actors met together to use their memories to bring this lakhon back to life.”
These actresses – two of whom played the giant characters for the lakhon in their youths before the war years and all three performed in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district – are the only knowledgeable sources left regarding this form of theatre aside from what has been written down again since 1998.
The lakhon troupe was first formed in 1998, the first year that the group of elderly actresses began meeting, and began performing in 1999.
“In 1998, we gathered to practice, and then uncle Chen Neak came to do his research and he found six or seven other elders. At the time of the official rehearsals, our group began on May 15, 1998 by saluting this great teacher who dedicated so much of himself to studying this lakhon just so we could begin rehearsal,” said Khim.
Today the group led by Sok Khim has about 30 members and training groups for new members typically involve 10 to 12 people per group.
She points with pride to the uniqueness of this lakhon and how all of the roles are played by women and are speaking roles rather than just dance.
She notes that the age of the women performing does not matter in terms of which part they play, but there is an advantage to casting younger actresses in bigger roles because they have more endurance to make it through the whole play.
Before the play begins the cast comes out to salute the audience and introduce themselves and their characters from the stage.
In 2000, the lakhon was performed at Angkor Wat and in 2008 it was performed at the Chenla Theater, but it has not had nearly as many opportunities to be seen or celebrated over the years as has Lakhon Khol or Royal Ballet.
“Those stories, according to the original script, took three nights and three days to perform in their entirety,” she said. “But because the books were lost, the elders could only recall some of it from their memories and now the performances take just over an hour.”
In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the organizers of the cultural season programme at the Institut Franais du Cambodge, the Kien Svay Krao Lakhon will be doing a pair of high profile performances on February 3-4.
“I want to show the next generation of Cambodians this unique form of traditional theatre from Kien Svay district in Kandal province. Please support this traditional Khmer lakhon and I’d like to request that all Cambodians and foreign guests buy tickets for this cultural season programme.
This form of theatre most often performs the story of Lin Thong, Preah Samuth and Puth Somaly, while the four Champa dramas are still rehearsing.
“Without these performances, this form of regional Lakhon could be lost. So it’s important point to be thankful for this programme and support it strongly,” she said.
Narim said that the culture ministry studies local art in all of its forms, but is limited in terms of time and funding as to what it can do, but this is a case with a happy outcome as an art form that was once lost has now returned.