The Separation of Word and Deed

In my review, I was planning to refer closely to the programme notes outlining the classical Lao stories in this evening ‘taster’  of Lao drama, but this programme seems to have gone missing since we returned from Laos this summer, along with half our souvenirs and gifts!

I took my 15-year-old daughter to visit her father and half-siblings during the summer vacation to see her relatives and to experience her culture.  We spent about a week travelling on our own and one evening, whilst visiting the Hmong night-market in the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, we were attracted to the palace complex by the call of gongs and cymbals.

The little ‘palace’ is now a dusty museum, but three evenings a week the Lao Royal Ballet put on a classical drama and dance show for tourists.

‘How can it be the Royal Ballet?’ my daughter asked.  ‘Laos is communist, they don’t have a Royal family, and that doesn’t look like ballet to me…’ Laos is officially named the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and the ballet refers to its classical dance-drama.

I don’t think that Laos has a strong tradition of performing arts, but both Luang Prabang and the modern-day capital have small theatres.  These are certainly not something that my daughter’s father would have been exposed to in his mountain village, unlike informal folk entertainments, although the Buddhist temples and Shamanic rituals that are part of daily life are ‘performance’ in its broadest sense, and provide spectacle, drama and narrative to the villagers’ lives.

I’m not sure how much urban populations engage with live theatre, either.  If you go to an opera or acrobatic show in China organised by a tour group, you could easily come away thinking that indigenous theatre was just a part of the heritage economy, when in reality small theatres and teahouses are still thriving, and local festivals celebrate with street performances put on by professionals or amateurs. Is it the same in Laos? My daughter’s father, a businessman, wasn’t sure.

The Lao show reminded me of The King and I, which illustrates my ignorance.  However, this is where most Westerners of my generation first came across ‘Asian’ theatre forms, albeit bowdlerised via a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and 20th Century Fox! It is still an all-time favourite, however.  The Lao actors wore the same style of painted masks, and the female dance troupe wore the slim silk shifts and golden conical headdresses worn by Tuptim… There seems to be some debate whether traditional Thai/Lao/Khmer culture originated in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia.  Our Lao friends would argue that it all began in Laos, of course, but I believe that the Cambodians would argue their corner hard, and the Thais would point out that they developed it to its height of sophistication.

The Lao performance took place through a proscenium arch, but with the orchestra (men playing gongs, cymbals, drums and Lao xylophone) also sitting on stage.  The actors and dancers, many of whom seemed to still be children, probably in training, enacted scenes from ancient Hindu/Buddhist tales. It wasn’t the most technically competant or spectacular show I have ever seen, but it was an enjoyable evening’s entertainment even if we didn’t really know what was going on.

In the main story, a masked god and a serpent , after some type of fight, knocked crooked a cloth and papier-mache sacred mountain that  was sitting centre stage in front of two thrones and a painted backdrop!  It sat there, lopsided throughout, and we weren’t quite sure if this was part of the plot or an unfortunate technical glich until we reached the end of the performance. Then it became glaringly obvious that, not only was it part of the plot, but it was the plot.    The king, who later came on stage and sat on one of the thrones next to his extremely beautiful queen and her maidens, had called on the country’s brave and strong men to mend the mountain, and name whatever they liked as their reward. (Oh, what a silly king! Hadn’t he heard of small-print or get-out clauses?) The hero was the man who was able to push the mountain upright again. And, of course, after completing this act of great daring and strength, he chose the king’s wife as his reward, no matter how many other beautiful maidens were offered instead…

What was interesting for me was how the roles were divided.  Women danced, boys played monkeys.  Dancers revealed their faces (as did the Queen, who was the head dancer), but the actors wore masks. Actors moved, but somebody else offstage spoke their words and sang their songs.

It was strangely moving, hearing the Queen’s lament at leaving her husband, as she sat withoot expression, her face perfectly still.

Photos from this performance still to be uploaded.