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I can feel "you don't feel it anymore"――Review of "Pratthana - A Portrait of Possession"

Review / Asia Hundreds


ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

The weariness of "you," swaying on the stage, invades me. Desire and words—like polluted water that should have been what I needed to live, but end up hurting me, driving me insane. Nothing but weariness accumulates in the idle bodies drifting on the stage, which are occasionally permeated by desire and treat the bodies of others as things. The words and bodies of "you" overlap on the stage, and in the audience my own outline frays and becomes hazy——These feelings had soaked through my body by the end of Pratthana: a Portrait of Possession (henceforth, Pratthana), a production that stretches to four hours, with a two-part structure and intermission. What hurt the most was that I had already experienced becoming this way in my own words and body before coming to the performance. Diving countless times through Tokyo's packed trains every day, wearing down the awareness that the jostling figures around me are actual humans with their own personalities, I have been choreographed into insensitivity. From such insensitivity, indifference rears its head. I am absorbed with myself. I don't have room to think about other people, much less politics, the work of searching for ways to connect myself and others. Bizarre, strange events pass by around me like scenery outside a train window, as I walk my own path like a bystander. But the performance of Pratthana presented me with the overwhelming force of others, forcing me to stop and think.

This work is the story of Thai artist Khao Sing (which means "possession" in Thai). The performance opens in the middle of the night in 2016, with the narration of the scene of his young lover Wayla Waree (which has the sense in Thai of "the flow of time" and "the murmur of water") sitting by a pool. The bisexual protagonist Khao Sing is always referred to in the second person "you." The performance ranges from 1992, when at 17 years old his adoration for pure art made him want to become a painter, until 2016, when—against a background of a turbulent and unstable Thai society—the 41-year-old Khao Sing has become numb, wallowing in desire in the midst of an idle life; episodes from 2016 are interspersed between scenes that basically progress in chronological order. The words that tell Khao Sing's story possess a range of Thai actors on the stage. All 11 performers (five women and six men) speak sometimes as narrator, and sometimes as characters. And the seven-person creative team (waiting in the exposed wings) undertake art, lighting, sound, and wardrobe changes directly onstage, participating in the performance.

The first sound onstage is that of water bubbling in the midst of orange traffic barriers. This work is filled with water in various forms. The names of Khao Sing's two male lovers in the play both mean "water" in Thai. The water bubbles along throughout the flow of the narrative, just like Waree's name, and becomes murkier, as if to reflect Khao Sing's ongoing spiritual and physical decay, from the clear pool at the opening of the performance to the muddy flow of the Chao Phraya River at the end. Continuing on from the sound of real water, the words delivered in Thai by Witwisit Hiranyawongkul—a young man with a feminine and gentle feel to him, who mainly plays Waree in the performance—are themselves like the murmur of water, lapping softly against the ear. In contrast to the gentle sound of this voice, the words spoken involve the sensual depiction of bodies. He talks about the figure of Waree stopped by the pool, overlapped by that of Khao Sing at 17 years old, and then goes on to play the 17-year-old Khao Sing. Pavinee Samakkabutr, a woman with eyes that feel somehow sad and kind, responds by playing the role of the art teacher who taught Khao Sing. The words "the gazer, and the gazed upon" are repeated. The narrative voice is directed not to the audience, but to other performers on the stage. SHIMANUKI Taisuke provides the following analysis of voice in this work:

The actors do not speak to any particular one of the over ten actors and staff positioned at various places on the stage; instead, they babble on while constantly wrapping their utterances in vagueness, as if exhaling clouds or puffs of breath to float in the air of the space. The impression of haziness may be heightened by the sound of Thai as it is unfamiliar to Japanese ears, but their speech, for which they sometimes switch to a small microphone or mobile speaker, often makes the locus of the principal = "I" delivering the lines unclear to the audience.1

The condition of the bodies hearing these voices should also be noted. The performers other than the narrator may be situated in the location to which the voice is directed but, in contrast to the speaker whose attention is focused on the words, they seem loose and distracted in body and mind, as if in their own rooms, and it is unclear whether they are listening to the voice. Furthermore, because the performance involves the actors drinking beer at their discretion while performing, the bodies on-stage are relaxed by alcohol. The looseness of these bodies, as if drifting under water, gradually spreads to the audience over the four-hour performance time.

It isn't only the bodies that are unstable. The outlines of the roles are also vague. The performers listening to the voice crowd together in a "town" made up from the agglomeration of a large stepladder, a refrigerator, and traffic barriers (this "town" changes shape according to the scene, and moves to different positions many times during the performance), and the narrator speaking to it keeps changing from one person to the next. On the other hand, in any scene that develops through acting rather than narration, the performers playing each role stay fixed. Thus, although the audience tries to empathize with each of the episodes performed on a scene-by-scene basis, this is made impossible by the lack of continuity, with the roles and performers continually changing. The central protagonist Khao Sing is male but is also played by female performers, transcending gender. Because there are many male performers with a feminine air, and female performers with a masculine air, the difference between male and female is somewhat nebulous. Only in scenes depicting sex among characters are their genders portrayed as written.

"Pratthana" means "desire" in Thai. As the Pratthana performance progresses, it overflows with sexual images. In the first part, the voices and movements on-stage are almost calm and intimate, but from the scene where Khao Sing, having entered art college, "fucked like crazy" with his female lover Rakchao, intense gestures start to emerge. With music playing, the two intertwine, Polaroid in hand, with unique movements choreographed by contact Gonzo's TSUKAHARA Yuya. They take pictures of each other, both scrambling to snatch the camera as they lie on the ground, grappling as they each try to mount their counterpart's body, and audibly striking each other's bodies with their hands. The raw sound of flesh colliding with flesh, like real sex, exposes the feel of bodies. What we see here is a desire for dominance, literally and figuratively, physical attempts to assert dominance over each other with violent contact—physical attempts, moreover, to treat their counterpart's body like an object and do with it what they will—and to turn each other into "the gazed upon" by photographing them.

The desire to dominate is also demonstrated by the frequent use of images. In the second part, which begins with the narration "Back then you were possessed by savagery," a threesome between Khao Sing, who has started working at film set as a continuity supervisor and has started using cocaine, and two new lovers (a young woman called Fa, and a young man called Nam, which means "water") is expressed through choreography with even more violent contact. As they intertwine on hands and knees, the bodies are magnified onto a screen spread across the entire back of the stage with a camera held by the performer of Khao Sing. In scenes where Khao Sing meets with and separates from his lovers (of whom two are male and two female), photographs and video footage of his counterparts are displayed again and again on the screen at the back. This is an expression of Khao Sing's unilateral desire to dominate his counterpart, as "the gazer." The video separates "the gazer" and "the gazed upon," and by pushing the breathing body of "the gazed upon" onto the other side of a screen, the sympathy with one's counterpart's body that usually emerges from the very fact of being in the same space is lost. Despite being in the same space, the dominating "gazer" (Khao Sing) and the dominated "gazed upon" are shown to be clearly separated by both the intense contact, making prominent the boundary between their bodies, and the video separating space and time. In a scene where a middle-aged Khao Sing—played by a bearded Teerawat Mulvilai, really looking like a middle-aged man—forces Waree to fellate himself, the narrator nearby talks about a demonstration, and countless performers gather their bodies close together with Tsukahara, throwing their shoes in the air, striking each other, and forming a strange, grotesque mass. This can be seen both as a symbol of the Khao Sing's internal chaos, and of the constant violence in Thai society, where coups d'état are frequent. Indifference and insensitivity towards the condition of the bodies of the people in front of you slowly entangles the bodies of "you" and I.

The distinction between "the gazer, and the gazed upon" also applies to the relationship between the performers and the audience. The stage and the audience are illuminated the same way through the entire work, and although the whole theater feels like a single space, the direction of the performers' voices and the awareness of their bodies is almost always perfectly contained within the stage, and only rarely directed towards the audience. Further, vinyl tape is stretched across between the stage and the audience, separating these areas like a breakwater. In the second half of Act Two, this vinyl tape is moved by Tsukahara to divide the area of the stage diagonally. On the downstage side of that demarcated space, illuminated by lighting near the audience's seating, are Thanaphon Accawatanyu, a male performer who has a graceful way of moving and who looks down on the farmers and speaks ill of the populist regime in a good-humored way, and Mulvilai, who talks about the desires of the elite rulers who want to defeat the populist regime filling "the paralyzed body of the nation." Meanwhile, on the gloomy upstage area near the back, myriad performers form a circle, kicking and lynching a single person. Video of this is taken with the camera and projected onto the screen at the back. The nature of Thai politics, in which powerful people alternate, exercising violence and dominating the people—and which is not just given typical portrayal here, but rather narrated at various points interspersed throughout the story—overlaps with Khao Sing, possessed with the desire to dominate. Uthis Haemamool, author of the original novel Silhouette of Desire speaks of the themes of the work in this way.

…[R]egulations and conventions that govern social citizens in many cases adopt conduct or attitudes that threaten and coerce people. I believe this is no different from physical conduct during sexual activity, and I simply juxtaposed those two images. I tried to show that there is no difference in these types of conduct, and that there is mutual overlap... They project an illusory image of themselves that needs to be accepted, loved, adored, and worshipped. Thereafter, they approach the public, start a relationship or connection with them, and this is where sexual desire is born. This dynamic is the same whether it occurs between two individuals in a relationship or between the government controlling a nation as part of its control. 2

Facing a stage of whirling desires for sexual and political dominance, all the audience can do is "gaze." The undulating voice of the narrator onstage is occasionally directed towards the audience, like a splash striking the banks of a river. It feels unusual for the audience to be spoken to by a narrative voice using the second person "you." Ignorant of Thailand and in a seemingly politically stable Japan, I couldn't be this "you," which refers to the artist Khao Sing in the midst of the political confusion of Thailand. There is no escaping the fact that the distress of artists and turmoil in modern Thai society forming the themes of Pratthana are not mine, here in Japan. However, a sense of commonality emerges at the end of the performance even so.

In the final part of the performance, with the props arranged like a miniature Bangkok, Hiranyawongkul (who had played Waree) earnestly keeps narrating Khao Sing's journey as an artist. As the contemporary art scene came to be overwhelmed by conceptual art from the West and a preponderance of theory, so too did the flame of longing for classical art that arouses the senses and emotions go out in "you."

Like a sword that penetrates the human body and affects the heart in a single stroke. You felt driven to seek and one day possess that quality as a painter…
You don't feel it anymore.

At some point the other performers had moved directly in front of the front row of the audience, becoming "gazers" looking at the stage just like them. At certain points they interrupt the narration, calling to the narrator, "you don't feel it anymore." Their voices are directed at the stage, amplified by microphone. The words "you don't feel it anymore," repeated over and over, seem as though about to overpower Hiranyawongkul's voice. But, as if in opposition to these words, he continues his narration with everything he has, trying to feel the unfeeling Khao Sing. The narration, pushing aside the other voices and seemingly striving to fill the space with its own, stops when the narrator pauses at the words "you don't feel it anymore" responding:

What about this? Do you feel this?

At this point I can see the figure of Waree looking towards us, and reaching out to the audience with both hands. He stands on a low orange stepladder, downstage center. I, who had at first been a "gazer" looking at Waree, have now distinctly become "the gazed upon" by him. Now there are only two performers onstage. Samakkabutr narrates into a microphone that Khao Sing and Waree meet at a bar along the Chao Phraya River, and on Rama VIII Bridge Waree goes to the outside of the railing, and how he falls into the muddy current. As Shimanuki also points out, these two also played the 17-year-old Khao Sing and the art teacher who taught him to paint, respectively in the first scene Two people who had been "the gazed upon" with me looking at them as "you" at that time, became "the gazer" looking upon me as "you" now.

"What you worry about dying and slipping away is not me, therefore, but your own feelings…"
"All of these words should have been spoken by you."
"Yes. Because I am you. Can you accept the truth of who I am now? Please let go of my hands."
"You will continue to hold onto him like this. Until your arms grow numb from the stretch and ache because of the pull. Until your body can no longer endure it."

Immediately after this final narration, Waree leans his body's center of gravity back and falls with the stepladder. The inorganic sound rings out loudly and plainly. The stage darkens, and an LED rope stretched across the ground in imitation of the Chao Phraya River shines blue. I don't feel it anymore. At this point the curtains are drawn.

The time flowing through the performance of Pratthana seems not "like a sword that penetrates the human body and affects the heart in a single stroke," but rather to be a liquid that slowly soaks through the skin. The words of the protagonist Khao Sing, who drowns in desires and suffers from insensitivity, are spoken and performed by a number of performers regardless of gender. Narrators, performers, and listeners continually shift onstage like the undulating surface of water, and the outlines of the subjects uttering words and the objects receiving them waver vaguely. I thought I had been gazing—as if peering into the surface of the water—upon the performers, telling this narrative with the word "you" in their Thai rhythm as if floating gently in water, but at some point I sank into the thick viscous liquid of weariness and insensitivity included in these words, ultimately coming to be gazed upon as "you" by the performers. I was possessed, then, by the weariness and insensitivity of Khao Sing's "saddening and pathetic body." Listening to the voices repeating "you don't feel it anymore," I realized that as a result of the time spent watching the bodies before me continually talk in an effort to feel this sense of "not feeling anymore," I was now feeling such a sense. There was a realization that the sense of "not feeling anymore" had gently but surely permeated my body in my daily life, and accumulated like some kind of sediment. In the space of the Pratthana performance were the bodies that felt this sense of "not feeling anymore."

As a form of art that uses the body, theater is able to make one feel even a sense of "not feeling anymore." I am not "you"—Khao Sing's language and body are different from my own. The two of us had seemed so clearly separated by the border between stage and audience, but after a long period of time my body was possessed by the body of "you" onstage. Despite the superficial differences of language and culture, the sensations of the body—controlled by tangible and intangible violence and inflicted with similar indifference and insensitivity—resonate as something we share as fellow humans. "You" might be me. The outlines of "you" and "me" waver, touch, and blend together. Drama is all about such an intersection of one's own body and language with those of others, and feeling that "we" are "similar but different, different but similar." It is the political desire to present one's language and body in a non-dominant form, in order to search for connections between others and oneself.

1 Shimanuki Taisuke, The Story of Your Life – "Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession" Review. Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession Uthis Haemamool×Toshiki Okada×Yuya Tsukahara. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from http://pratthana.net/news/features/bangkok_review_en/

2 Uthis Haemamool, From Individual-oriented Stories to Expansive Art. Japan Foundation Asia Center Special Page. Retrieved December 17, 2019 from https://jfac.jp/en/culture/features/f-ah-uthis-haemamool/3/

3 Shimanuki Taisuke, The Story of Your Life – "Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession" Review. Pratthana – A Portrait of Possession Uthis Haemamool×Toshiki Okada×Yuya Tsukahara. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from http://pratthana.net/news/features/bangkok_review_en/

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Translation: Ben Cagan