A monumental, innovation-rich work based on collaboration among Uthis Haemamool, Toshiki Okada, and Yuya Tsukahara
Uthis Haemamool is a Thai novelist who has remained in vigorous activity amid the continuing political disruption in Thailand since the 2014 military coup. In the wild world of his novels, he confronts issues of universal concern while freely flitting back and forth between reality and fantasy, history and myth, and politics and individuals. His work has won the highest accolades, as evidenced by his selection for the Southeast Asian Write Award and the Seven Book Award. The novel on which “Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession” is based is his latest full-length opus, and extensively reflects his own life. It overlays the sexual relationships of a lone artist living in Bangkok on the political turmoil he experiences in Thailand.
Toshiki Okada, who leads the theatrical company chelfitsch, adapted this novel for the stage, both writing the script and directing the play. He became a focus of attention in theater around the world for his incorporation of the daily doings and mannerisms of Japanese youth into contemporary theater, and now ranks as one of Japan’s major playwrights. With his keen insights into modern society, he felt a strong empathy with Haemamool’s novel, and this eventually led to their collaboration. It was the first time for Okada to adapt a novel for the stage, and the resulting work is also his most ambitious; it is performed by 11 actors and lasts about four hours in all.
Yuya Tsukahara, a member of the performance troupe contact Gonzo, is handling the spatial orchestration and design as the scenographer. contact Gonzo is known in Japan and other countries for its stunning performances that sometimes even resemble brawls, and Tsukahara is especially adept at application of various techniques across conventional genre borders, using body, space, video, and other media. Serving as scenographer for the first time with this play, he built sets while working with Okada in exploring areas such as the placement and design of the countless props on the stage as well as people in space and time, and the handling of video closely intertwined with the presentation. He also did the choreography and appears in the play. He constructs pieces while crossing and dismantling borderlines between genres and techniques, and this play showcases his talent in a way that has never been seen before.
“Pratthana: A Portrait of Possession” is at the same time a highly innovative work in the sense that Haemamool, Okada, and Tsukahara took up the challenge of new horizons and captured a new artistry, each from their own standpoints.
Performance with a diverse Thai cast and a team of emerging creators
The 11 actors selected through auditions held in Bangkok do not have fixed roles. They become by turns actors, audience, and narrators, and make the work’s unique structure consisting of performance on the stage and speech to the audience come splendidly to life. Differing greatly from each other in respect of age and career, they constitute an ensemble straddling a wide range of fields such as music and cinema as well as theater.
The creative team has a membership of leading-edge creators from both Thailand and Japan. The assistant director is Wichaya Artamat, a young director who has been given an invitation to the 2019 installments of the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels, one of the most prominent festivals in all of Europe, and the Wiener Festwochen in Vienna. Costuming is being handled by Kyoko Fujitani, who, while active as a member of the theatrical troupe FAIFAI, brings a unique perspective to stage costuming for works of theater, dance, art, and music in Japan and other countries, and has been involved in many of Okada’s works in recent years. Lighting design has been assigned to Pornpan Arayaveerasid, who was in charge of the lighting design for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Fever Room” and has come to the fore for his experimental outlooks that defy the conventional wisdom for stage lighting. Audio design is in the hands of Masamitsu Araki, who has unveiled installations and performance works as a “sound artist” in his own right. Takuya Matsumi, who is a member of contact Gonzo alongside Tsukahara and also works as a graphic designer and photographer, is handling the video chores.
This work unfolds through close involvement in the staging concept and mutual interplay by each and every member of not only the cast but also the creation team, who will undoubtedly become leading presences in tomorrow’s theater.
Borderlines of gender, class, generation, politics, and art as manifested by artists and art history in Asia
While depicting the life of a single artist in Thailand, “Pratthana: A Portrait of Possession” takes up universal questions that have to do with social situations surrounding our lives and life itself. One of its themes is the hidden borderlines that we all confront just by living in contemporary society: borders between the self and others, life and death, man and woman, one class and another class, past and present, the individual and the nation, Western art and art on its periphery, the controller and controlled, and desire and its object. Borderlines of all sorts also can make living harder for us, and Okada and Tsukahara interweave them with the dichotomies of stage/audience seating and reality/fiction, so that they are presented as a firsthand experience for all in attendance. Can borderlines be overcome, or do they continue existing without being overcome? We hope the audience catches the borderlines that loom up several times in the work.
A new type of fiction in theater
“Pratthana: A Portrait of Possession” unfolds in the form of a play within a play, and the 11 actors may play the protagonist at one time, a character involved with the protagonist at another, and the narrator, who is a non-character, at yet another. They are on stage throughout the performance lasting for four hours with an intermission, and sometimes watch it like an on-stage audience. The performance is not a one-way output flowing from the actors on stage to the audience in their seats; it takes the structure of a narrative with several layers of interrelations.
Furthermore, the actors are not the only ones on the stage. Scenographer Tsukahara and other members of the creative team, who generally stay behind the scenes in conventional theater, are constantly visible on it. They may appear as part of the scene or alter the space by moving equipment and props along with the actors. By so doing, they throw the play-within-a-play structure into sharper relief. The story performed on the stage takes the form of a new type of fiction, and Tsukahara and the other members of the creative team, who also become members of the cast, play the role of exposing this framework. Born of a plurality of intersecting relations and a layered structure, this work also lays these moments bare and jars an audience attitude of merely being watchers. After the end of the four-hour performance, the saga is taken over by the audiences who presumably went there just to see it.
“People staring and people being stared at.”
Audiences will definitely experience a new kind of art appreciation in the genre of theater that does not end with appreciation of the performance on stage.