It's already nearly 8 in the evening, and Soung Sokunthy, 47, is applying make-up to her face as she prepares for a performance at Wat Koh Andet, about 50 kilometres from the capital of Takeo. Tonight, she is Mom, the female protagonist in Chivit Kon Komprea, or “The Life of an Orphan”, a new play she wrote specifically for this event.
All around her, other artists in the Phy-Sokunthy Troupe are buzzing about – throwing on costumes and applying blush and lipsticks. The audience of more than a thousand sits on mats and is shouting in anticipation for the performance to begin. Yen Sok, a 30 year-old farmer, had an early dinner so that he wouldn’t miss this – a performance of Lakhon Bassac, a traditional form of Khmer folk theatre, given by the most famous, and controversial, troupe in the country.
The play tells the story of two lovers separated by war. After a few years, they reunite and have a child, before the woman discovers her lover had married a wealthy woman during their separation. It would be a sad story were it not for the steady stream of gags about daily life in Cambodia. In one scene, a servant encounters a robber and, fearful for his life, lays out requests to the thief.
“When I die, can you pay all the money I owe to the four microfinance institutions in our village?” he asks.
Sokunthy’s plays are a far cry from the original form of Lakhon Bassac, which takes its name from the Bassac region, which is now part of Vietnam’s Tra Vinh province. It is a hybrid between yike, Khmer traditional opera, and Chinese opera, according to Asian theatre expert Catherine Diamond.
“What made Bassac different was the use of operatic storytelling song and percussion combined with its Chinese-influenced costume design and high-flying [martial art kicks] and often athletic performance,” she wrote in an article called Emptying the Sea by the Bucketful: the Dilemma in Cambodian Theatre.
The theatre was popular in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the provinces, and was even broadcast every day on state television and radio. Notable artists like Saing Sarun and Chek Mach were household names.
But like all traditional art forms in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge years virtually wiped Lakhon Bassac out, and now there are only about 10 troupes left in the country, according to Meas Savuth, a professor of the craft at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
“It is the matter of demand and supply,” Savuth says. “People do not love seeing it as before, and many of my students, who are already very few to begin with, could not find work upon graduation.”
Sokunthy’s troupe, however, is an exception. Their three-hour performance on Wednesday at Koh Andet brings them $2,000, and they perform more than 300 nights each year.
Yet Sokunthy, who grew up in a family of performers, still remembers when she couldn’t even find rice to eat on a daily basis.
“After the fall of Khmer Rouge, I did not have anything except my skill in Lakhon Bassac,” she says. “So I joined a local troupe, and after years, I still had nothing because the income was too low.”
Whenever she wanted to give up her career as an artist, her barber husband, Phan Phy, persuaded her to carry on. In 2000, he succeeded in convincing her to start her own troupe, funded at first with loans.
“Now we have houses and villas, cars and other businesses, thanks to Lakhon Bassac,” she said, and performers appear well-compensated – with one interviewed by The Post saying she earns as much as $10,000 each year.
The main secret behind the success, Sokunthy contends, is the precise understanding of the audience, as well as the creativity of the work. Unlike the traditional form, Sokunthy’s performances hinge on humour, giving their mostly rural audiences the chance to “reduce their stress and ease their pains”.
“While writing the plays, I usually include modern elements into the main story which is actually set up in the ancient time,” she said. Her plays touch on topics like HIV, Cambodian pop stars and even selfies – modern twists that Savuth, the RUFA professor, criticised as “violating the originality of traditional art”.
“To me, it looks like they are making comedy, not the real Bassac,” he said. “People may enjoy it, but such performance is not serious enough to represent Cambodia at the national and international level.”
But Sokunthy points to the troupe she’s built up, and the roar of her audiences, as proof that sometimes art forms do need to change with the times.
“You want to survive and grow as artists, you have to be both adaptable and creative,” she says. “Being conservative and repeating things could easily kill art, and even artists.”