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From consumption to creation: the "narrative power" summoned by flux――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.

This really felt like a flux of change. Pratthana is the story of an artist living in Thailand. The story begins with a monologue from the main character Khao Sing, as bright blue light illuminates the floor, as if in imitation of a river. He sits down onto the floor and aimlessly spits out, fragment by fragment, words that hang in the air like poetry. I'm not sure how to express it: listlessness, unsteadiness, impossible to bear. A hazy impression difficult to describe. After the monologue the baton is passed to a slim woman. The way that she hurls her words—with force, gesturing with her body and hands—is just like a public speech. Khao Sing, who had continued vacantly with his monologue until just before, also seems to recover his vitality in response to her words. Just when it seems that the two are about to begin a dialogue, the performers on-stage swap, and the performance continues with yet another monologue. Unlike the opening monologue, this one has a confident manner of speaking, strong and certain, but there is no subject on-stage to take these words in. Even though the lines are couched in the second person, addressing "you," the words wander off into the air. Before long the scene changes and, with the sound of a can of Singha beer being opened, a drinking party begins—a clamor of young people. At the back you can see a girl dressed in sequined clothing that gives expression to her irrepressible youth. She reflects the stage lighting, catching it, shining out, stressing her existence here; and yet she is positioned slightly away from the group, photographing an inebriated young man with her smartphone. The piercing light draws attention to her, but she seems to stand somewhere at a distance from the excitement.

I've tried setting out the opening scenes up to this point, but I can't find the logic in the scene changes. Coupled with the dim lighting on-stage, it feels like being shown foggy half-remembered images in the order they come to mind. Because it is impossible to grasp the main melody of the story, focus on the performers is inevitable. It goes without saying, but the performance of the actors serves as a clue to understand the narrative unfolding in front of you. It is not only the content of their words, but the way that they speak (whether loaded with emotion or deliberately suppressed), and their physical gestures that provide information giving some indication of when and where on earth the "here and now" might be, whether this is a comedy or a tragedy, or a multi-layered play within a play, and this is how the audience weigh the sense of distance from the stage. However, the performance here involves the same actors donning different clothes to play multiple characters from one scene to the next. Since there is no one-to-one correlation between the actors and characters, it is difficult to form an impression of the people on-stage. Flesh-and-blood people usually compel you to form some kind of impression of them. We look at their hair or physique and, by comparison to past human relationships, come to our own conclusions about a given person feeling a certain way. This is just human, almost a natural phenomenon. However, the direction, as described above, means that the impression of the narrative developed in response to the actors' performances is quickly betrayed, and continues on its own course. The narrative could also be described as continually evading being pinned down by interpretation.

On the other hand—or perhaps I should say because of that—one is strangely fascinated by small fragments of the larger narrative, which is to say, to the "lines themselves" produced by the actors here and there. There is a screen on the wall facing out as you look at the stage, on which the lines are projected as text. The intoxicated young man in the party scene described before faces the group and declares,

Love will only cage desire inside the heart - it only suffocates me. Therefore, I say desire is love!

In the midst of this indecipherable context, the poetic text that suddenly jumps up in front of your eyes stirs the imagination, leaving ripples in the mind. Perhaps because of the frustration in trying to get into the narrative, there is a temptation to immerse oneself in the written text. The fragmentary text projected onto the screen brings a sense of poetry to the stage.

Sometimes video shot on-stage is even projected onto the screen in real time, like a live broadcast. The narrative occurs in both places—with the actors continuing to perform on-stage while a framed perspective is projected on-screen—making it impossible to focus on everything at once. On-screen the image is filled with the face of a young man, while on the stage man and woman kiss one another at the edge of the stage. To the side, the young people who had been performing until just before are sat on the ground watching the stage, and I find myself noticing that I can't tell whether they're just watching or whether this is also part of the performance. The focus of our gaze naturally drifts over the stage in a state that could be described as "reflexive," and this movement of the gaze brings our awareness back to reality, making us conscious of our own body in the "here and now." If the narrative were to run its course entirely on a flat physical surface, like a movie, the gaze would not be moved around in this way. Video works in the entertainment industry, basically speaking, draw the gaze and invite immersion in a passive form. With Pratthana, however, multiple sources inviting attention occur simultaneously in the performance space, which actually prevents immersion into the narrative. A "state of flux" endures—you repeatedly fall into the narrative and emerging back into reality as your gaze goes back and forth between the two. It is as if one is experiencing "here and now" the lack of control confronted by the main character, Khao Sing. And I would later realize that this very state of vacillation was Pratthana's real charm.

For example, in the latter half of Act One there was a scene where a male and female body intertwine on the stage. The narration repeatedly uses the word "intercourse," which suggests sex, but the expressions of the entangled man and woman are somehow violent. Just when it seems that the man has mounted the woman, he tries to forcefully take a photograph of her face with a Polaroid camera. Not to be outdone, she also wrestles the camera from him and, in the throes of passion, relentlessly photographs his face. Looking at them as they come together, sometimes striking each other and sometimes violently making love, they appear to be sating their lusts together. You hear rough breathing. You can't look away from the writhing bodies. The border between the stage and the audience melts away, narrative and memory blend together, and the "intercourse" draws in before you.

This symbolic scene also featured as a topic of discussion in "Your Post-Talk," at which participating members of the audience shared their impressions after taking in the performance. I did not notice this, but according to another audience member the direction of this scene had the narration describe social events that occurred during this period: the prime minister changed, there was an economic crisis, and a constitution was enacted. These events are told falteringly, like supplemental audio with absolutely nothing to do with the intensity of the man and woman on-stage. I didn't notice anything other than the clash of the man and woman closing in on one another but, sure enough, those events also "happened" at the same time. Then, after the performance, I was made aware of this as a result of a perspective that differed from my own.

At "Your Post-Talk," as if arranged, not a single person said the same thing as anyone else. One person talked about politics, one about romance, one about violence, and one about youth. These are themes people tend to fall into, when searching for the correct answer, because they are pressing issues in their own lives. In this case, however, you find yourself plunging forward into the experience as worlds are opened up by the various interpretations offered when confronting other people's version of the story. This experience had as much of an impact as watching the performance, if not more. Because the staging of Pratthana does not allow for easy immersion into the experience, people's gazes wander freely. As you constantly go back and forth between the narrative and reality, the images before your eyes blend together with remembered experiences, continually creating meaning in the space between the self and the narrative. Maybe the "state of flux" was the priming before bringing forth such activity. The only way that you can grasp meaning that hasn't been forced upon you is through our own reality. Without a doubt, this is "your narrative."

You could count the number of plays I've been to in the past on both hands, but I quietly felt the potential through this series of experiences. Generally speaking, in the entertainment industry meaning often is forced, to allow clarity. Narratives are consumed like roller coasters, sending the emotions soaring and then offering a sense of catharsis. When people who have watched the same work say to each other, "that scene was good," it is as if they are verifying that their perspectives are the same. That isn't something that should be repudiated in itself. However, as uncertainty about the future increases, and skepticism about the universal narrative supported by the majority spreads, excessive pressure on sharing an understanding of a single narrative may also accelerate divisions between communities. In these unpredictable times, isn't it the "storytelling experience"—weaving a narrative together from each of our varied perspectives—that we need, rather than the simple consumption of narratives. "Your Post-Talk," held as part of Pratthana, provided one possible response to this question.

"Your Post-Talk" was a program structured to last less than one hour. It was broadly divided into "time to take stock of impressions of the play, while looking at a graphic record of the performance," and "time to discuss impressions of the performance, in groups of three." In the stock-taking part, you each look for words to tell our respective narratives, with the assistance of visually abstracted information relating to the performance. In the discussion time, the roles of "listener," "scribe," and "storyteller" were assigned, and you spun your words into "your narrative" from the guide created together. The fact that this is expressed not as "my narrative" but "your narrative" may be a crucial point. When the second person "you" is used, then there must be at least two subjects present. With this program, narratives that could not have been noticed alone were re-spun through the intervention of others.

When discussing "Your Post-Talk" above, it was no exaggeration when I stated that the experience had as much of an impact as watching the performance, if not more. It felt as if "our narrative" was being born in the "here and now." The act of "telling" can only exist when there is a subject other than oneself to act as recipient through the act of "listening." Further, the narrative that is "told" turns into another yet narrative when it passes through the subjectivity of the "scribe" and is recorded. It is from the existence of "listeners," "scribes," and "storytellers" that narratives are born. If we are aware of these processes, then couldn't we describe the narrative told, the narrative we weaved together, as "our narrative?" The world opens more and more through the blending of perspectives that are impossible for individuals. Narrative arises with the resonance of the self and others. "We" may have been only three people, but a group of three may be the smallest possible unit that "we" could have been—a trialogue overcoming binary conflicts. When a new narrative born in the "here and now" has become able to exist in multiple tracks according to each subject, can "our narrative" then become an omen of the future that "I" am connected to?

If going to the performance was an act of "watching," then "Your Post-Talk" involved acts of "listening," "writing," and "telling." By listening to the narratives of others, you take your mind journeys through an expanded world; then, through your own telling, you create a narrative in this wider world. By going through this sequence of cyclical activity, "your narrative" becomes "our narrative," and continues to resonate as "my narrative." When a work takes discussion in search of a correct answer as a premise, diversity can end up tearing us apart; by allowing a "state of flux," Pratthana's skillful production, liberates diversity and transforms it into potential. And before we know it, we ourselves have become creators through the acts of "watching," "listening," "writing," and "telling"—not consumers, not spectators, but active creators giving rise to narratives. This is an experience beyond the reach of individuals acting alone. Rather than accelerating division, the free wandering of the narrative leads to a theatrical experience that sublimates into "our narrative" through a process of weaving together. Through my own experience of Pratthana, I came to feel that, now more than ever, it's experiences like these that we really need.

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Translation: Ben Cagan