By Pawit Mahasarinand
The Government Savings Bank paid respect to its founder King Vajiravudh with a new stage musical
Customers of the Government Savings Bank (GSB) and members of the press pretty well filled Muangthai Ratchadalai theatre last Wednesday night as the curtain rose on the first performance of “Thiraracha The Musical”.
Funded by the GSB and produced by JSL’s Mind Matters, the company behind the annual outdoor staging of “Klai Kangwon The Musical” in Hua Hin, the musical celebrates GSB’s 103rd anniversary and honours its royal founder.
Set in the reign of King Vajiravudh, it tells the story of an up-and-coming civil servant Luang Chai Phithet who also moonlights as a journalist voicing his social and political commentary under the pen name “Antonio”. His arch rival goes by the name “Anonymous” and he later finds out that she’s the young woman he was supposed to marry with the blessing of her parents. Coming in-between them is an army officer Captain Luang Thoet Bodinthon who’s loyal to the throne.
While this might sound like another melodrama, it’s actually a compelling drama set in a society in which freedom of speech was just starting to develop and democracy was being tested as part of the modernisation of Siam. Most importantly, the drama conveyed the message that we are all entitled to voice our opinions and we all must listen to and accept our differences with open minds, this at a time when we cannot say anything negative about the draft constitution.
There were also subtly hidden messages of the conflict between the Thais and Chinese, with corruption being blamed for the relationship between the former’s civil servant careers and the latter’s commercial benefits. And there was a jab at a rival bank that happens to be a patron of this venue. Perhaps that’s why the air conditioning wasn’t fully functional that evening.
However, just as the musical play was reaching its climax, the plot stopped developing and the show veered off in another direction, becoming just another presentation of King Vajiravudh’s contribution. This part looked and felt like scenes from another royalist musical drama “Si Phaendin” (“Four Reigns”). It’s as if GSB, whose slogan is “guaranteed by the government”, was afraid that the audience wouldn’t be able to see it already, indirectly yet clearly enough, in the play.
And so, while it set off as being a play the audience could enjoy, learn from, relate to our contemporary situation, and open our minds for discussion, the ending of this musical was more like a documentary stuffed with clear messages yet zipping our minds and our mouths.
Thanks in part to award-winning director Bhanbhassa Dhubthien, the audience watched a good flow of one scene into another while also witnessing a fine performance by Kornkan Sutthikoses as Luang Chai Phithet, who was much more comfortable here than he was in another period musical drama “Hom Rong”. Also memorable was Nuengthida Sophon, who was given a more mature role as Prayong than in her previous stage and TV productions and whose acting and singing was much better than that in “Rak Chap Chai”. She should however have a heart-to-heart talk with the costume designer.
Completing this love triangle but with less stage presence and more problems with his microphone was Pattarapon Tooun as Captain Luang Thoet Bodinthon. In lesser roles and yet delivering more arresting performances were Thanaporn Waekprayoon as Prayong’s mother Khunying Yuean, Chaiwat Anutrakulchai as Thep’s supervisor Phra Boriphanraksa and Sukanya Sompiboon as Thep’s mother Yok.
Standing out from the cast, but unfortunately in the wrong way, was Wasu Saengsingkaew as Chao Phraya Sena Phakdi, whose understanding of stage acting seemed to be shouting and stressing the last syllable of every sentence and whose singing made me wonder why he was once a teen music idol.
You don’t have to be a theatre scholar to know that King Vajiravudh, himself a playwright, actor, director and producer, introduced a then-new form of theatre here, namely lakhon phut, or spoken drama. The monarch wrote scores of original plays as well as translations and adaptations, including some Shakespearean plays, with a wide range of subject matter. And with the ongoing Shakespeare 400 celebration worldwide, I’m wondering if the cultural and educational merits would have been greater had GSB instead organised a festival to promote new and smaller stage productions of the king’s translations of Shakespeare by professional companies and university students.
But then again, I’m just a lifelong GSB customer whose mother buys one GSB lottery ticket as a gift on every birthday. And so, “Thiraracha The Musical”, while truly serving the celebration purpose, was just another one-off theatrical event, a one-weekend talk-of-the-town that had little effect on society and the development of contemporary Thai theatre.