Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) Students Star on the Chenla Stage
Khmer Art Action was invited to contribute to the Lakhaon International Festival of Drama, Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF) actors put the drama and grim reality of the lives of garbage pickers on gritty show at Cambodia’s premier arts venue.
International Festival of Drama, CCF’s dramatisation of life as a child garbage picker on the Steung Meanchey dump, plays on Phnom Penh’s major stage.
A few years ago CCF was invited to contribute a piece to the Lakhaon (Drama) International Festival of Culture 2009, a major arts event supported by the French Cultural Institute. The venue for the Festival was the Chenla Theatre. Recently fully renovated and with seating for 600, the Chenla is Phnom Penh’s and Cambodia’s most prestigious arts venue.
Under the direction of Soung Sopheak, CCF’s Head of Arts and Drama, CCF’s dramatists rose to the challenge and their performance of Daylight’s Darkness, effectively a dramatization of the lives many of the actors themselves once led, was stark and effective.
As the full house audience gathered and took its seats they could not fail to be struck by the looming bulk of the open stage, its refuse piles, feeble shack and rusting drums, and the sense of eerie menace which leaked from it and seeped, like the producer’s artificial smoke, across the auditorium. All that seemed to be missing was the reek and nose-stinging stench of the real thing, sitting a scant few kilometres away from the performers and their relaxed spectators. The audience didn’t stay relaxed for long. A procession of shaded, shabby figures, shoulders hunched from hopelessness and the weight of dragging a living from the detritus of one of SouthEast Asia least rich cities, materialized on stage. Each addressed the audience directly and told his or her story, bitterly lamenting the fates which had brought them to this place and this pass. Then, shuffling and snuggling into the debris, they re-enacted what had once been their own lives when they sought sleep among trash and rats.
A video backdrop heaved the nightly roar of dump truck engines, the glare of their lights and the threat of their bone-crunching wheels from their memories onto the stage and the silence which followed their departure brought not peace but war as the group squabble and made up and fought amongst itself as the evil night passed. Daylight brought no warmth to the scene but only the prodigal return of a lost parent and the officious maraudings of unsympathetic officials, an event which brought some humour to enliven the darkness of the theme and bring a touch of joy to the cracked existences on display. There was no joy in the finale however when the errant, remorseful parent died alone and the child scavengers returned to find yet another light, however unreliable, extinguished in their lives. It was not a performance that can easily be forgotten.
The Khmer Rouge Come Back to Life
The eyes were cold, the face unfeeling, the gesture swift and the gunshot flat and final. The tear-faced kneeling woman folded to the floor and her squealing baby, its noise her crime, shrieked as the black-clad commander swung it at a too solid tree. And life moved on. The refugees, fright-filled, were herded and worked, the pyjama-clad troops and their trip-wire tempers went about their murderous business while their commander, irritation twitching around his mouth, holstered his pistol and turned back to his task, imposing the will of Angkar, of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s new masters, the guardians of its living hell, that would devastate the land and scar the people for generations to come.
The audience watched in total stillness. And they kept watching as a calm young monk was brutally pushed from this life to his next, as families fought for survival, some winning, some not, and as gunfire, grief and gratitude provided the backdrop to rescue, to the rebirth of hope and the end of Cambodian nation’s nightmare.
And when it was all over, the once stern Khmer Rouge faces cracked into smiles, the monk returned to this world, families reunited and even the plastic baby was retrieved from under the wheels of a camera as the cast, made up entirely of CCF’s young actors, assembled onstage to take the applause of the studio audience. CTN, one of Cambodia’s most popular television stations had just broadcast, live, Darkness at Noonday, a drama created and produced by CCF’s Head of Art & Drama, Soung Sopheak. Long after the broadcast, images from this powerful piece would stay hauntingly in the mind. It was a production of strength and quiet passion. Its only haunting problem was that it was a portrait in theatrical blood drawn from real life, and real death.