Of madness and joy
text size

Of madness and joy

Two recent Bangkok stage performances that cover very different realms of the human condition

The Night I Loved Joshua Wong. Photo courtesy of Qrious Theatre
The Night I Loved Joshua Wong. Photo courtesy of Qrious Theatre

We review two original works -- a Thai-language political satire and an English-language musical -- with LGBTQ central characters.

La Nuit Que J'ai Aimé Joshua Wong (The Night I Loved Joshua Wong)

This comedic play reminds me of the loquacious madness and savagery in Antonin Artaud's Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You In The Closet And I'm Feelin' So Sad. Artaud believed that theatre should give the audience "everything in love, crime, war and madness" to bring them face-to-face with their basest selves. But while Artaud saw the capacity for the lowest forms of violence and cruelty in all mankind, La Nuit Que J'ai Aimé Joshua Wong sees it in only one group of people: the conservative elite.

Written by Radtai Lokutarapol and directed by Wittaya Sudthinitaed for a young queer theatre company, Qrious Theatre, the play centres on Coco (Natthaya Nakavech), an ultraconservative transwoman who suddenly becomes convinced that her nephew, Frank (Arachaporn Pokinpakorn), is the famous Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong. She simultaneously tries to understand her hatred for it with a foul-mouthed psychologist (Minta Bhanaparin) and sets out to destroy all that Wong represents -- a bloodthirsty hunter preying on an innocent lamb.

The transgender character and the cross-gender casting turned out to be a mere guise for the actual hot-button issues the play address: class war, ethnocentricity and anti-democratic sentiment. The play also invents slang of its own, using famous luxury brand names and French words pronounced in a Thai accent, almost as if to avoid directly naming these issues and certain groups of people. "Versace" is a stand-in for "lower-class" and "Hermès" for "upper-class", for example.

The use of these familiar words in new ways was confusing at first, but as the play hurled forward, their new meanings became clear and the play more enjoyable. I liked the play's freneticism and hilariously unhinged characters. The cast was wonderful, especially Minta, who deservedly snatched up a Bangkok Theatre Festival (BTF) award for her performance. But it disturbs me that Radtai felt the need to tackle the subject of class and political conflict through the guise of language and queer theatre. The playwright seems to operate on the assumption that these subjects are too taboo, and that satirising the conservative elite is a dangerous act on the Thai stage. Although draconian censorship laws exist and are often wielded as a political weapon in Thailand, writing a political play shouldn't be an exercise in the art of self-censorship.

La Nuit Que J'ai Aimé Joshua Wong ran from Nov 14-24 at Goose Life Space and was part of the Bangkok Theatre Festival (BTF). Radtai also won a BTF award for his script.


Life Lessons. Life Lessons

Life Lessons

Claire Stanley has collaborated with Peel The Limelight since 2015, always bringing music and her sweet operatic voice to spoken plays. This year, after a slight delay, Stanley gets a chance to put her musical abilities on full display with the company's first original musical, Life Lessons. Written by Stanley and director Peter O'Neill, the musical follows Regan (Stanley), a young woman who has just lost her mother (Kelly B. Jones in a voice role) and found love with Lizzie (Thiptawan Uchai). We see Regan come out to her father, Ray (James Laver), find fulfilment and suffer more loss. There's also a spiritual centre of the play, in the form of trans nightclub owner Marlene of Dietrich (Neil Anthony Rusia). The writing is deeply disappointing. Life Lessons feels more like a revue or a concert than a fully realised musical. The characters are flat. Marlene is killed off before her relationship with any of the characters is fully formed, only to hover unnoticed in the lives of Regan and Ray like a useless guardian angel. Each scene and song depict an important chapter in Regan's life. The theatre goes dark, and we leap to the next chapter. The 13 scenes and songs are like patches of fabric neatly laid out on a bed, waiting to be sewn together into a quilt.

Despite that shaky foundation, the musical is a charmer. Its hokeyness is at times cringeworthy, but mostly endearing. It has such a sunny disposition that we almost forget about the tragedies in Regan's and Ray's lives. The more cheerful songs are memorable for their funny lyrics, while the most affecting songs are the poignant numbers Hiding and The Last Song Is Sung. Stanley pours herself into the penultimate power ballad And All I Wanted Was You, her vocal talent and versatility on full display.

O'Neill brings the audience into the show with such love and sense of joy, and no shortage of booze and food. Before the musical begins, we walk into Dietrich's, where Marlene is serving us cocktails. In the wedding scene, champagne and cupcakes are passed around, and audience members are invited to dance. By the end, the audience erupted into applause and a sort of cheer. The night one of my colleagues saw the show, it brought the audience to their feet.

Although the musical's life lessons couldn't be more hackneyed, the way it infected so many with joy is something to think about. At one point, Regan's life seems to be so filled with it that tragedy began to take shape in my imagination. And I was reminded of Zadie Smith's essay Joy. Meditating on the nature and danger of joy, she writes: "[S]ometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the famous example. Isn't it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? […] Joy is such a human madness."

Life Lessons continues every Friday and Saturday at 8pm until Dec 7, at Peel The Limelight Studio, Jasmine City Building, Sukhumvit 23 (BTS Asok). Tickets are 700 baht (500 baht for students and members and 10% discount for groups of 10 or more). For more information and reservations, visit peelthelimelight.com or the Peel The Limelight Facebook page.


Life Lessons. Photos courtesy of Peel the Limelight

Do you like the content of this article?