Shadows from the past

The Khmer Rouge killed Cambodia's people - and its culture and art. But the light is shining bright again, says Paul Taylor
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There can't be many capital cities where a buzzy, thriving theatre has sprung up just round the corner from a genocide museum. But given Cambodia's traumatic recent history, Phnom Penh is a place of stark and bizarre juxtapositions.

There can't be many capital cities where a buzzy, thriving theatre has sprung up just round the corner from a genocide museum. But given Cambodia's traumatic recent history, Phnom Penh is a place of stark and bizarre juxtapositions.

The Tuol Seng Museum was once a high school that became, in the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79), the largest centre for detention and torture in the country. Its walls lined with photographs of prisoners, taken before (or after) torture and death, the place now bears chilling witness to the brutal insanity of the regime led by Pol Pot that wiped out 1.6 million Cambodians and systematically eliminated the country's intellectuals and artists.

Traditional crafts and performance skills were in danger of dying along with the practitioners. That is why Sovanna Phum, the theatre nearby, makes such a heartening contrast to the genocide memorial. This warm and welcoming independent association of artists is not just dedicated to reviving and promoting Khmer culture. It wants to experiment with ways of fusing traditional forms with contemporary concerns, of juggling a deep respect for the past with the perceived duty of passing on a living tradition to the future.

Their latest creation, Rousey Dek (Iron Bamboo), is a magical merger of puppetry, circus and dance that makes satirical reference to corruption and ignorance in present-day Cambodia. The show visits Battersea Arts Centre next week as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift). On 21 June, performed outside the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, it will be a highlight of Lift's through-the-night Midsummer Eve celebrations.

The co-directors of Sovanna Phum are Delphine Kassem, a small, lively Frenchwoman, and Mann Kosal, a stocky, merrily determined master of the art of shadow puppetry. Kassem arrived in Cambodia in 1992 and taught in the circus department of the Royal University of Fine Arts. "But it was a crazy situation. The students in circus, dance, music and theatre trained every day, but there was nowhere for them to perform. So I decided that I must find a small place where they could grow as artists."

A couple of years later, she joined forces with Mann Kosal, who graduated from the Bassac National Theatre. But he became frustrated with a career where you might get only two opportunities to work each year. Rescue came in the shape of a shadow puppet that he found lying forgotten in a back room. It fascinated him, but it was no easy task to resurrect the skills needed to create these beautiful objects, made from flattened leather that is carved, perforated, dyed, mounted on bamboo sticks and then viewed on either side of a screen.

The title Rousey Dek encapsulates the way the classical and the modern collide in his shows. He also whisks away the barriers between the sacred and secular as puppets from two different traditions (the large Sbaek Tom kind and the smaller, comically jointed Sbaek Touch variety) share the stage. An image of a chained-up man is shown against a background of cupped candles that create a murky radiance. This symbolises the way that the prisoner is in a jail within a jail, for the nation itself is a prison. People in the countryside, Kosal asserts, do not know their rights, which this theatre is helping to rectify by touring the villages with shows that deal with social issues such as HIV/Aids and domestic violence.

I had read in the programme that the name "Sovanna Phum" denotes "Golden Age" and wondered if that suggested a kind of paradise lost. "No," says Kassem, crooking an amused eyebrow, "not lost. We're here."

BAC (020-7223 2223) 17-19 June; Battersea Park (020-7863 8012) 21 June

Comments