Chit Phumisak, on stage
At times insightful and self-conscious, Teenage Wasteland is the coming of age story of a life lost too soon
Splashing Theatre returns to the stage with Teenage Wasteland: Summer, Star And The (Lost) Chrysanthemum, a play inspired by the life and work of Chit Phumisak. At times moving, at times frustratingly obscure, Thanaphon Accawatanyu's ambitious new creation makes a subtle statement about institutional violence against Thai youth and political dissidents.
It's a sly move to be staging the play during the back-to-school season, the time when the media are usually buzzing with stories of the battle between traditional and modern values on university campuses. Those who are following the ongoing saga at Chulalongkorn University -- which began when a lecturer violently grabbed a student council member who walked out during the annual induction ceremony and has since resulted in the removal of four council members by the university -- will find echoes of the incident in the play.
Chit, the late iconoclastic poet, historian, philologist and author of the seminal Chomna Sakdina Thai (The Real Face Of Thai Feudalism), was no stranger to controversy and violence on university campus. As the editor of Chulalongkorn University's annual magazine, Chit stirred up controversy and faced disciplinary action for writing and publishing articles that addressed social issues and were critical of the government. This led to the infamous yonbok incident, where fellow students threw him from the stage in the auditorium, resulting in injuries and hospitalisation. Chit later joined the Communist Party of Thailand and died in 1966 at the age of 35, informed on by villagers and shot and killed near the Phu Phan mountains of Sakon Nakhon by state officials.
Conceived and directed by Thanaphon and Thongchai Pimapansri and written by Thanaphon, Teenage Wasteland uses these key moments in Chit's life in three fictional narrative lines. The first -- inspired by Stephen King's It and The Body, which was adapted into the classic coming-of-age film Stand By Me -- follows a group of childhood friends haunted by the mysterious death of one of its members. The second -- inspired by science-fiction anime series Mobile Suit Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion -- tells another coming-of-age story of friendship and loyalty. The third involves a young filmmaker shooting a film about Chit's life and communing with the late revolutionary.
Like Thanaphon's previous plays, Teenage Wasteland suffers from the artist's inability to say one thing at a time. Although this is a more spare and mature work, Thanaphon still seems preoccupied with dropping names of intellectuals and inserting esoteric references. Fans of Japanese anime may find the science-fiction parts more relatable, but I've always found manga and anime's visual translation to the stage embarrassing to watch for its adolescent-like awkwardness.
Thanaphon has more success with Stephen King, a writer who understands fear like no other. His treatment of the famed author's works is smart, haunting and moving -- deftly turning stories of friendship, fear and childhood trauma into subtle condemnation of authoritarian culture, abuse of power and erasure.
At its most beautiful and insightful, Teenage Wasteland poignantly captures the sense of loneliness and isolation felt by Chit -- a maverick in a society that values conformity and shuns independence. At its weakest, the play is like the character of the young filmmaker who folds into himself and escapes into the realm of film and fiction, isolating his own audience.
Teenage Wasteland: Summer, Star And The (Lost) Chrysanthemum
Teenage Wasteland: Summer, Star And The (Lost) Chrysanthemumcontinues until Sunday at 7.30pm at Creative Industries, Floor 2, M Theatre. Tickets are 550 baht (350 baht for students and 300 baht per ticket for groups of 10 or more). Call 086-830-7060 or send a message to Splashing Theatre's Facebook page. The play is in Thai with English surtitles.