A conversation between Uthis Hemamul and Toshiki Okada, on the journey from the novel “Silhouette of Desire” to the play “Pratthana: A Portrait of Possession”
Late 2017, reading the novel ‘Silhouette of Desire’ – a novel written by SEA Write Award winner Uthis Hemamul – was a very special experience. From perceiving the forms of the letters with my eyes, the title written in an unrecognizable font on the cover, an unfamiliar size of the boos itself, to the touch of the paper, to releasing the letters sealed within before opening the book, and to absorbing the stories in the work that excites and stimulates, I was left in dilemma. I had wished to keep reading, but at the same time I had also wanted to put it down. Next thing I knew, I had finished the book in two days. Not long later, I was once again excited to learn that this literary work will be produced into a stage performance by the Toshiki Okada, the Japanese playwright and theatre director whose works are recognized by theatre practitioners worldwide. His well-known works include ‘Five Days in March’, winner of 49 th Kishida Kunio Drama Award in 2005, before being adapted to the novel and serialized with the novel ‘Our Many Places’ which also translated in Thai ‘The End of the Special Time We Were Allowed’. This serialization also won Kenzaburo Oe Award in 2008.
This article presents the journey shared between the two artists from two disciplines, derived from a conversation between them during a meeting on July 21 2018 at Candide Bookstore, the Jam Factory.
The session is led by Uthis as the host as well as the co-speaker with Toshiki Okada, with Thitirat Thipsamritkul as the interpreter. The conversation begins with Uthis recounting his first meeting with Okada in 2016 when Uthis went to Japan to join in a seminar as a author from Thailand, where he was introduced to Okada. One year later, Okada arranged a meeting with him in Bangkok, which happened to be the time Uthis was working on “Silhouette of Desire”. Uthis then told Okada about the story and ideas behind the novel, where Uthis described it as “a very erotic book” – confirmed by some of the painting Uthis had drawn himself, which was later published under a separate title “Sketches of Desire”. The idea was that the sketches were supposedly drawn by the main character in the novel ‘Khaosing’ [Lit. ‘possessed, possession’]. This sparked an interest on Okada’s part to produce a work from the book. He started looking for possibilities to collaboration. Okada offered “not only to adapt this piece into a play, but also develop an exchange and devising process at the same time”. Thus began the collaborative work by two artists from two countries, two cultures, and two disciplines.
From the work exchange process, the two found a common connection between them, as both of them were born in the 70s and grew up in the same era. “Ideas and thoughts of people from the same generation tends to relate to each other more easily, so it’s interesting to see how this connection will inspire Okada to develop a play out of this novel” Uthis explains. After the novel was finished came the process of developing the piece into a play. This required several translations and adaptations due to the difference in linguistic contexts. “The initial instinct to make a play out of this novel is essential, but the process to develop it and make it work is also a complex one” Okada adds. I find it interesting to see the impulse on which the instinct was based, as well as Okada’s viewpoint towards the book and to the work process as a whole. And most importantly: why theatre?
Okada says the thing that intrigued him to develop the novel into a play is the issue about how people are manipulated by, and bound to, the body, analogous to how one is manipulated or influenced by the society or the state. For him, this topic felt very universal. He wanted to enhance the experience further from mere reading, something that could be experienced by one person only. Once you enter the process of devising theatre, a dialogue between two people becomes a communication with cast and crew, and ultimately with the audience. Being in a space together, to listen to a story and experience the story together, offers another possibility to experience the same story in a different angle. Yet even so, the process of devising a play was not a simple one, as the novel contains issues that are either challenging, controversial and sexually sensitive, as well as a rather complex context of Thai contemporary history. Adapting the medium from a novel into a play, which had completely different limitations to the narrative, posed a challenge to him as both playwright and director.
Okada goes on to explain about his process. He started in 2017 to conduct research so that he could understand more about Thai contemporary history, which included visiting important historical sites as well as places which played key events in the novel. He also interviewed thinkers, academics, influencers and people who had experienced the real events. This research enabled him to understand the background of Thai contemporary history and “Silhouette of Desire” in more depth. From his eyes as an outsider, he saw the challenge in telling the story in a Thai context due to its complex history in its violent and volatile dynamics. On the other hand, he saw the shift being more clearly defined than other societies. This reminded him to reflect back on the society he belonged to like Japan, whose dynamics is not as clear as in Thailand. The idea inspired him to take this piece on a tour in countries other than Thailand, since it is his belief that telling the story in a Thai context would compel people to reconsider their own social history through participation in the play.
Okada adds that presenting the play adapted from fiction added a lot of depth to the work, because learning about different social contexts through the novel helped understand the context in more aspect than just the informative, it also adds to the level of perception of emotion and feelings from such effects. The novel itself is retelling a period of history overlapping with the characters’ life. In addition, during rehearsal where the material is worked upon with 11 Thai actors, it helped him understand the background of contemporary Thai events more profoundly. Okada tells about the adaptation process that “Actually, bringing a novel to stage is not in itself difficult, but it would be uninteresting. Theatre should offer something more than the feeling that someone is reading you an illustrated novel.” Okada has spent a lot of time exploring the power of communication in theatre that is distinct from the novel. In the first draft, he tried cutting off some of the scenes he thought would not be used in the play, but the result did not yield anything different from the novel. He experimented and adapted with more drafts, careful not to cut the scenes that was not supposed to be cut, based on feedback and teamwork until the script is finished in his fourth draft. Having rehearsed with the actors has shown that this version is capable of showing the full potential of the novel using theatre.
Another interesting point in the play is the extreme sexiness in the text of Uthis. As a reader, it is an essential element, the core idea, as powerful as the story being told. Okada adds “The art of communication in a play has its plus side, but there are also limitations to it, and this ‘sexiness’ is challenging for theatre. Compared to books that can convey near-limitless imagination about sexiness to the readers, in theatre you cannot have the actors perform those images on stage, as it risks sending the wrong message. Instead of opening up the imagination and feelings, the audience is more likely to get caught up on the actions, like how good they are as an actor with their ability (or lack thereof) to kiss on stage. It would prompt the audience to focus on what is in front of them, but failing to deliver the state of emotions at that moment”. Eventually, Okada found a way to convey the state of sexiness through theatre. As for how it would be delivered, Okada invites you to see it for yourself. Uthis then shares his experience from having witnessed the erotic scene “The actors have this body language that created multiple layers of emotions without it ever feeling suggestive or pornographic that would alienate the audience. Rather, it enabled the audience to aesthetically perceive the emotional tension present on stage”. Okada says this was just how he had wanted it to feel. As the director, an important question for him was how to move the audience to share the emotions of the characters, not just be there as spectators in third eye position. If the story tires the character, the audience should feel tired as well. It indicates a shared state between audience, actors, and also characters, “Because to perceive and truly understand a person’s life is hard, and it requires effort to do so” Okada adds.
Listening to the conversation up to this point, I can now understand more about the common grounds between the book and the play. If “Silhouette of Desire” is shattering the limitations of authority of the reader as individuals on a private space, “Pratthana: A Portrait of Possession” is shattering the limitations of authority of the audience as a part of society within a public space. Another key element in this talk session is the direction where Okada wants to show the idea of ‘Border’ between us as individuals and the others which may have been ‘alien’ to us, like body and desire, or citizen and state, for instance. These are the ideas Okada wants to convey in the performance, like the border between actors and audience, border between actor and character, border between language and meaning, or border between fact and fiction. These ideas came from a book called ‘Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation’ by Thongchai Vinijjakul, which Okada used as research material to define the direction of the show. The attempt to shatter the borders will reveal the system linking our bodies and identities to other things, reflect our life paths that are tied to things above our own point of view and thoughts of society and politics, invites us back to think about our ideals of existence and relationships with other people, with the society, with the state, and with the world.
All of their conversation reminded me of ‘The Zoo Story’, a play by Edward Albee written in 1958. One object that Albee mentioned in his play is the ‘cage’, which in my view could be compared to the ‘borders’ referred to by both Uthis and Okada. 60 years ago, set in the Western context, Albee challenged and questioned the idea of whether human beings could still survive once they were freed from the ‘cage’ of society norms and rules. 60 years later, set in the Eastern context, Uthis and Okada’s ideas no longer prompted me to ask the very same question, but far more interesting is how the definition of living as a human being changes once the ‘borders’ are destroyed.
After the world premiere on 22-26 August 2018, at Sodsai Pantoomkomol Center for Dramatic Arts, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, the play is scheduled to be performed at Centre Georges Pompidou, France, in December 2018. Coincidentally, ‘Khaosing’ the protagonist of the play also went to visit Pompidou to see the artwork he had been worshiping all his life, only to find out it wasn’t that interesting. From the borders between two artists, two cultures, two disciplines, through the exchange process of two minds, two viewpoints, and two journeys, how will it reveal our lives’ borders as a human being? Find out in the upcoming show.
Written by Tananop Kanjanawutisit
Translated to English by Cholatep Nabangchang