Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Penh is mightier than the sword

The people of Cambodia are incredibly welcoming to tourists and genuinely appear to want people to come and see their country and then to tell their friends and families that it is a safe place to visit. Maybe it's down to the overwhelmingly Buddhist population, or maybe a recent history of genocide and conflict has caused an equal and opposite reaction, but everyone has been so (and I can't come up with a more appropriate word), nice.

I hope that things go in the right direction for them, there are certainly still issues. The current Prime Minister was a Khmer Rouge soldier, there seems to be the hint of dark forces in the shadows, a suspicion that neighbours and historic enemies Vietnam have much more influence within the country than people would like, even the implication that much of the revenue earned by Cambodia ends up in Vietnam. You get the feeling that Cambodia is a democracy on the outside but not on the inside, that it is not entirely free. Corruption and bribery are apparently a normal part of getting government officials to do things, and people are reluctant to talk politics in public.

One group is trying to use the power of performing arts to show visitors a much more positive side to Cambodia and aims to make people associate their country with art and culture, rather than its darker recent past. So "Cambodian Living Arts" puts on cultural performances in the grounds of The National Museum in which young people bring to life traditional Khmer arts and use them as a force for good. I am aware that I'm straying into middle-class Guardian-reader territory here, but if the cap fits...

So it came to pass that Justine persuaded me to attend one of the Plae Pakka performances called Mak Therng, half Khmer Opera, half ballet. Oh and... half pantomime. Musically this was... how to put this delicately... unlistenable. And that's coming from someone who wrote the cacophony that is "The Spirit of Bradford City", so I know a thing or two about discordant noise. The dancing was probably very good, but I'm a bloke, so I don't understand anything about that sort of thing... I'm not supposed to - it's not aimed at me. On the rare occasions I've seen Strictly Come Dancing, to hear Phil Tuffnell trade insults with Bruce Forsyth, or to look at Victoria Pendleton's legs, I have never had a clue what was going on - everyone seems to be doing things I couldn't do, even if I wanted to (which I don't) and when the judges declare the scores, I have no idea why they are good or bad. The rules are a complete mystery to me - a bit like Rugby Union in that respect.

Where was I? Oh yes, Mak Therng. Strange discordant music in a completely alien scale combined with dancing - it doesn't sound like a reason to leave happy hour at the Foreign Correspondents Club does it? But then you become immersed in the plot. There are subtitles displayed on a big screen above the stage (which is good, because my Khmer is coming along, but its not up to understanding light opera yet), and so the story is easy to follow.

Spoiler alert - if you're about to see
Mak Therng for the first time and don't want to hear the ending, stop reading now. Or if you're just bored, same advice.

Basically, a poor farmer is married to a hot girl who sells spices in the market. A bad dream involving dragons and stuff makes them worry that their blissful existence is not going to last and they're right. The King's son comes to the market (on the pull), spots hot wife, thinks "she'll do for me", drags her back off to the palace, two peacocks dance around a bit, before one of them gets shot.

I'm outraged at the Prince's arrogance, and from then on I have to stop myself from boo-ing every time he walks on.

Anyway, the farmer is not going to put up with this and manages to get an audience with the King who is also outraged that some geezer has nicked this bloke's wife, irrespective of how hot she is. It then becomes clear to the King that it is his son who is accused, but despite the family involvement, he is a fair and just king, so we are now flung into a courtroom drama.

There follows some slightly odd stuff where the plaintiff and the accused have to carry a drum around on a big stick, but the court finds in favour of the farmer, the Prince gets in a right old huff and thinking "if I can't have the hot wife, no one can", brutally murders her in full view. The King clearly feels let down by his spoilt brat of a son, orders his arrest, and they all live happily ever after... except the hot wife... and the farmer... and the Prince.

I don't know if they will succeed in exporting this to many other parts of the world, or if Cambodia will become known primarily for its performing arts, but I can honestly say it was the best Khmer Operaballetpanto I've ever seen.

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