A modern and subversive form of Cambodian theatre, Lakhon Niyeay is struggling to remain relevant as audiences look elsewhere.
In a small classroom at the Secondary School of Fine Arts at Phnom Penh Thmey campus, Chhim Sina scolds one of her seven students for forgetting his script. A teacher of Lakhon Niyeay, or “spoken theatre”, Sina holds a long bamboo staff in her hands, which she raps on the floor to dictate the pace at the opening of her play, called The Values of Women. The only props the class have to work with are a bamboo bed and a pillow.
“Although it is only a rehearsal, I have to be strict with them. They are the last students of Lakhon Niyeay, and the fate of this theatre depends on them,” said Sina, who is one of the last 10 Lakhon Niyeay teachers in the country.
Whereas Cambodia is known for its traditional theatre, like Bassac and Yike, Lakhon Niyeay is a decidedly modern artform and a hybrid of European and traditional Khmer drama.
“Lakhon Niyeay is different from the other Cambodian theatre forms because it is mainly performed through the character’s speeches rather than music, songs or verse, and they focus on lives in modern society, particularly the post colonial period,” Sina explains.
Spoken theatre gained momentum in spurts – first in the 1930s, before dying out briefly during World War II. In her article Emptying the Sea by the Bucketful: the Dilemma in Cambodian Theatre, Asian theatre expert and academic Catherine Diamond writes that since its creation, Khmer spoken theatre has been closely linked with politics. Originally harnessed as a voice for nationalism among urban Cambodians, the French colonialists moved to bring it under their own control.
“Although the Vichy-aligned protectorate at the time encouraged a pride in national heritage based on the Angkor kingdoms, nationalism was to be exclusively embodied in its handpicked sovereign, the young Norodom Sihanouk, and not with any nonmonarchist movement,” Diamond writes. “It is not surprising, therefore, that when spoken drama next appears, it is firmly under French supervision.”
Frenchman Guy Poree oversaw the Ecole du Theatre Nouveau, an institution dedicated to spoken theatre, where “any political or religious propaganda was forbidden”. Not until the 1950s did Lakhon Niyeay really take root in Cambodia, with the efforts of Hang Ton Hak, who would later briefly become prime minister of the Khmer Republic in 1972.
Ton Hak returned the art form to its political roots, attacking corruption and government inefficiency, all the while working at the National Theatre under the watchful eye of King Norodom Sihanouk. Two of his original plays in Khmer, Preah Artit Reah Hery (The Sun is Rising) and Ream Chbang Yeung (Our Elder), used political satire to criticise the ruling class and corruption in the early post-colonial period, and are considered modern classics and fixtures of literature courses in high schools.
“Often the theatre would draw from the reserve of local folktales but rewrite the moral message to provoke thought from the audience,” Diamond writes.
Although a patron of the arts, Sihanouk’s relationship with Ton Hak and spoken theatre could be shaky. His plays were broadcast on National Radio of Cambodia, and his National Theatre Company of Cambodia was allowed to operate, but as the plays gained in popularity, they also attracted the attention of the police, who on several occasions shut down performances.
Lakhon Niyeay, like all other forms of Cambodian arts, was crippled by the civil war in the 1970s and the subsequent Khmer Rouge regime. According to the Modern Asian Theatre and Performance 1900-2000, approximately nine out of 10 Lakhon Niyeay artists, including Ton Hak, died under the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979). Most of the scripts stored at the Royal University of Fines Arts were destroyed.
After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, spoken theatre experienced a brief recovery due to the lack of competition for other entertainment, which resulted in the quick establishment of a troupe and a department of Lakhon Niyeay at the School of Fine Arts in the early 1980s. Sina was one of the students attracted to the art form and graduated in 1991.
“At that time, people just got out of a dark age, and Lakhon [theatre] was the only means of entertainment they had,” she says.
Nevertheless, modernity has taken a toll on the art form, with television and movies having largely replaced it. The number of students has decreased due to the “lack of demand in markets”, Sina says.
According to Sina, Lakhon Niyeay has barely received attention from the government or any other institution, and in her 26 years of teaching, their department has never received outside funding, except for teachers’ salaries from the government.
“I believe people would come to see the plays if we had enough money to fund them, but we just do not have any. There are only 10 teachers and seven students now, and I’m afraid Lakhon Niyeay will be lost forever when they die.”
Keo Chanmithona, a 14-year-old student in Sina’s class, said she loves acting but her future goal is not to become a Lakhon Niyeay artist but a film star. The class is an opportunity to study acting for free, a sentiment that three of the other students shared.
Meanwhile, in a small room of a building near Sisowath High School, a group of Lakhon Niyeay actors and teachers rehearse Thaokel Chit Choul (Bad Boss), a well-known play written by Pov Youleng and Oum Chheun in the 1960s, which they are going to perform at Chaktomuk Theatre next month.
“As a former student of Lakhon Niyeay at the School of Fine Arts, I would do anything to save it,” says Soung Sopheak, the director of Khmer Art Action and the sole sponsor of the event. “It is one of Cambodia’s arts, and a part of the country’s identity.”
In 2009, Sopheak organised a play called Anderk Klahan (Brave Turtle) at Chenla Theatre, which drew more than 600 people; this success makes him confident about his next show.
“I gathered the remaining artists and asked them to do it again,” he says. “Bad Boss is a very famous play about exploitation and corruption in the old society.”
Keo Rotha, who will play the protagonist, Uncle Hum, was less optimistic about reaching a wide audience.
“There is no other sponsor besides Soung Sopheak, although he has been working so hard to find one,” Rotha said. “We have to sell the tickets for 10,000 riel [$2.5] each while barely anyone goes to see the plays with free admission. It would be fantastic if many people go to see it. Otherwise, it would just be our last play”.
Additional reporting by James Reddick