Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Performance troupe tours the country, modernising a classic form of art

Performance troupe tours the country, modernising a classic form of art

Soung Sokunthy (front) walks off the stage during a performance of her play, ‘The Life of an Orphan’, in Takeo province.
Soung Sokunthy (front) walks off the stage during a performance of her play, ‘The Life of an Orphan’, in Takeo province. Heng Chivoan

Performance troupe tours the country, modernising a classic form of art

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.

Kheun Raksmey plays the role of a mean daughter during Wednesday’s performance.
Kheun Raksmey plays the role of a mean daughter during Wednesday’s performance. Heng Chivoan

“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.”

A crowd watches the performance at Wat Koh Andaet on Wednesday.
A crowd watches the performance at Wat Koh Andaet on Wednesday. Heng Chivoan

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.”

MOST VIEWED

  • PM to vet NY holiday dates

    The Ministry of Economy and Finance submitted a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to formally set a five-day national holiday from August 17-21 to make up for the Khmer New Year holiday in April that was postponed. Finance minister Aun Pornmoniroth sent

  • Cambodia rejects UN rights claim

    Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Friday hit back at David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression after he raised concerns over the repression of free speech and

  • Snaring may spawn diseases

    The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned that snaring of animals has become a crisis that poses a serious risk to wildlife in Southeast Asia and could spawn the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. Its July 9 report entitled Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’

  • Ex-party leader, gov’t critic named as secretary of state

    A former political party leader known for being critical of the government has been appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, a royal decree dated July 9 said. Sourn Serey Ratha, the former president of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), told The Post

  • Residence cards set for over 80,000 immigrants

    The Ministry of Interior plans to grant residence cards to more than 80,000 immigrants to better keep track of them. The ministry announced the plan on July 10, following the results of an immigration census. “An inter-ministerial committee and many operational working groups have been set up

  • Kingdom produces PPE gear

    Medical supplies from Cambodia have been donated to member countries of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to assist in the fight against Covid-19, said an ADB report published on July 9. The report stated that the supplies were donated as a response to global efforts to

  • Kingdom, US vow stronger ties

    At an academic forum on Saturday to celebrate 70 years of Cambodia-US diplomatic ties, Cambodian researchers and officials expressed hope of encouraging US investments and for that country to deepen and improve its bilateral relations. Held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, it reviewed the past 70

  • Fifteen Cambodians from Saudi get Covid-19

    The Ministry of Health on Sunday confirmed 15 more imported cases of Covid. The 15 men ‒ all Cambodian aged 21 to 33 ‒ arrived from Saudi Arabia on Friday via a connecting flight in Malaysia. They were travelling with 79 other passengers, three of them women. The ministry said 80 of the

  • Ministry requests school opening

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on Thursday said it would request a decision from Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow a small number of schools to reopen next month. Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said if the request is granted, higher-standard schools will reopen

  • Kingdom eyes India FTA, China deal set for August

    Cambodia is studying the possibility of establishing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with India to open a new market with the second-largest regional economy. This comes as an FTA with China is scheduled to be signed next month while similar negotiations with South Korea