Theatre festival to unite Khmer and Western artists

Theatre festival to unite Khmer and Western artists

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French playwright and director Jean-Baptiste Phoun during rehearsals for Cambodia, Here I Am. Photograph: Chen Chanratana/Phnom Penh Post

On Saturday, the French Cultural Institute in Phnom Penh will open its doors to a new set of French and Khmer artists as part of its bid to revive Cambodian theatre, brought to near extinction during the war era.

The sixth annual Lakhaon theatre festival, which runs from September 8-15, will present three works by Khmer and Western artists including a respected French-Cambodian director who swapped banking for the stage.

It's a change of direction for the Lakhaon, which was created in 2007 to encourage the development of new contemporary theatre but usually puts on light-hearted work.

Aain Arnaudet, the director at the festival said: "In previous editions of the festival, we worked in a more comical spirit, but this year we took the risk of presenting a young French author."

Cambodia, Here I am is the first piece Jean-Baptiste Phou wrote and directed on his own after quitting a lucrative career in finance.

Born to Chinese-Cambodian parents, he grew up in Paris and began working in investment banking. In 2008, he quit to perform in Where Elephants Weep, an American rock-opera produced in Cambodia.

"I was actually pretty depressed in my previous work. When four years ago I had the opportunity to act in a show here in Cambodia it was my first time ever on stage," he said. "I didn't know what would happen after this first experience but it was too much of an opportunity not to take so I quit my job."

The following year he recorded excerpts in Los Angeles from the new musical Winds of Angkor and performed one of the leading roles the following year in a live performance in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, Here I Am is his first work as playwright and director.

Jean-Bapistite Phou and the Khsay Company have adapted it into Khmer for the first time, using Cambodian actors, for the festival.

The play has already been performed in Paris and several cities throughout France to wide critical acclaim.

It tackles the question of confused identity through the lives of four Cambodian women born and raised on foreign soil. Four women meet at the consultate of Cambodia in Paris, all on a quest to reconcile themselves with their conflicted cultural identity.

The subject is close to Phou's heart, having grown up in France with a Cambodian mother and Chinese father. But he says he had not intended to become a voice for the Cambodian community in France.

"I wrote the play for myself, it was very personal. It was when I started discovering how strong a medium theatre is and wanted to tell my own story through it."

The Lakhaon festival will also feature a performance of the French comedy But Where Has Monsieur Sanghak Gone? and the Reamker, the Cambodian version of the Ramayana.

Cambodia, Here I am, will be performed on Saturday, September 8, at 7pm and then again Sunday, September 9, at 3pm. Chenla Theatre. Free tickets may be obtained from the Media Library of the French Institute.

To contact the reporter on this story: Dagmarah Mackos at [email protected]

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