Beneath the red roof

Director Sarunyoo Wongkrachang explores the blurry line between sanity and insanity in his musical theatre production Langkha Daeng

Eight years ago, Sarunyoo Wongkrachang found himself frequenting Somdet Chaopraya Institute of Psychiatry. But it wasn't for a course of medical treatment _ the actor and director's mental health is nothing less than perfect, and the visits were purely professional.

Based on the hospitalisation of a normal person in a mental institute, Langkha Daeng’s plot allows engaging entertainment.

Back then, Sarunyoo was directing a TV version of Langkha Daeng (The Red Roof), and it required him to embark on thorough research of Thailand's very first psychiatric hospital, which was established in 1889. Now the director is turning his TV series into a musical, featuring a cast of sweet, funny, lovable, crazy people.

The story is based on the mistaken hospitalisation of a mentally stable person in a psychiatric institute, and it allows both comical and dramatic scenes while tactfully presenting the value of being human. After all, the definition of normalcy and insanity may not be all that different in the end.

The research Sarunyoo conducted wasn't so much about the legendary red-roofed hospital, which acquired its nickname after a Western psychiatrist had the zinc roofs painted red to prevent rust. The term "red roof" in Thai has since become synonymous with mental asylums.

His goal was to learn about various types of mental illnesses and related therapies from the team of psychiatrists, including Dr Sinngoen. The name Sinngoen immediately struck him because it harmoniously relates to Koythong/Thongdee, Langkha Daeng's protagonist, as ngoen in Thai means money and silver, while thong means gold.

So Sarunyoo asked for the doctor's permission to use his name for another lead character, who in the original movie was simply known as "the director".

"Dr Sinngoen kindly allowed us to use his name and by coincidence, he happens to be the present director of Somdet Chaopraya Institute of Psychiatry," he said. "Apart from the director's name, everything else is fictional, but still based on the medical knowledge we gained during the research." Originally written and directed by Euthana Mukdasanit, the 1987 movie starring Thongchai "Byrd" McIntyre and Jintara Sukaphatana was a box office success, while the theme song, Sabai, Sabai, became a timeless hit.

Sarunyoo Wongkrachang is a happier man as a musical director.

Sarunyoo's 2004 TV adaptation brought something new to Channel 7's prime time slots because it was like a TV musical inspired by Western musical films.

When the time came to try his hand at a theatrical musical, Langkha Daeng instantly came to Sarunyoo's mind as he didn't have to start from scratch. Consequently, next Friday, its crazy characters will come to life on stage at M Theatre.

A new score has been written for the stage production, which has been defined as lakorn bambud (drama therapy), referring to how watching a play or a musical can be a relaxing remedy for burned-out urbanites. Medically, drama therapy involves patients in role-play situations to treat psychiatric disorders.

"Coming to the theatre to watch a show can help people feel better as they leave the busy world and their troubles behind them," he said. "The performing arts, whether music or drama, help in emotional healing. This musical aims to offer good entertainment and generate smiles and laughter so that the audience walks out of the theatre happier."

Working on a stage production also makes for a happier Sarunyoo, because it takes him back to his roots as a stage actor. In his university years, he performed in plays produced by his fellow students of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Architecture, and what looked at first like a student hobby eventually became his career.

For almost three decades, his acting career flourished on both the small and big screens, before he turned his focus to becoming a TV and movie director.

However, his latest film about a rivalry among traditional mask dancers, Kon Khon (2011), failed at the box office.

While the film wasn't met with enthusiastic reviews, there's also a theory that there was a political reason for the movie's flop.

A leading yellow shirt figure, the 50-year-old Sarunyoo understands that his political activism put him in a difficult position when marketing the movie to a mass audience. But the musical Langkha Daeng, however, is targeted at a smaller audience, and if the 15 performances attract a full house at M Theatre, then all the hard work will pay off for the forthright director.

''It's not a big-budget production with elaborate sets for a theatrical spectacle, but with our limited resources, we're giving it our best,'' he said.

''Whether [it is] a big or small production may not matter as both may be able to deliver the same theatrical value and experience.

''It's like how an ink painting in black and white on a small canvas can offer the same artistic value as a multi-coloured oil painting on a giant canvas.''

He's confident that the dedicated cast members, who are busy rehearsing for next week's premiere, can deliver impressive performances. Taking the leading roles, Toni Rakkaen as Thongdee and Ramita ''Gypso'' Mahapreukpong as Arlai are first-time musical performers who have already proven themselves in the movies.

''Unlike the West End or Broadway, the Thai theatre scene lacks professionally trained musical performers, and with what we have _ no matter how good they are, the actors are unlikely to be cast in leading roles,'' he observed. ''We still need singing and acting stars as magnets, and Langkha Daeng allows Toni and Gypso to do something that they don't normally do. Of course, they will make less money than movie and TV acting or modelling, and the only thing that they will get more of is hard work. So as musical performers, they and the rest of the cast really have to devote themselves.''

The cast also includes singer and Elvis Presley impersonator, Vasu Saengsingkaew, as well as Thailand's queen of reggae music, Zom Ammara, and Anuchyd Sapanphong, who once starred in Hom Rong.

Vasu plays Dr Sinngoen, who mistakes Thongdee for Koythong, an insane millionaire whose wife sent him in for psychiatric treatment.

Thongdee then receives electroshock treatment instead of Koythong, and during hospitalisation he befriends other patients, including Arlai.

The information Sarunyoo gathered during his research has made him better understand the various conditions of what most people would lump into a generic term of ''lunacy''. But Langkha Daeng wants to go deeper _ to look not at the elements that constitute madness, but those that make us ordinary.

''A patient may have hallucinations, hear someone whispering to him all the time, while another patient may suffer disturbances in identity and general awareness of himself and his surroundings, but normally mental patients live in their own world without doing harm to others,'' Sarunyoo said. ''On the other hand, normal people have to fight back anger, hatred and other feelings in a competitive world where they need to build and maintain a positive self-image. When emotional bombs explode, we can't be sure who's crazier.''

Mistaken for the insane Koythong, Thongdee is befriended by mental patients.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kanokporn Chanasongkram
Position: Feature writer