Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Comedy as Commentary: Volpone in Myanmar

Joanna and Michael traveled to Myanmar in February to continue our collaboration with Thukhuma Khayeethe (Arts Travelers). Here is Michael's account:
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We are working on Ben Jonson’s play about greed and con-artistry, Volpone (1606), in collaboration with Thukhuma Khayeethe (TK) of Myanmar.  The title character is a nobleman who seeks to increase his wealth by fooling other greedy nobles into giving him lavish gifts in the hope that they will be named heir in his will. The grand deceit involves Volpone pretending to be deathly ill, assisted by his equally sly and considerably more clever servant, Mosca.  

We had several reasons for choosing this play.  First, comedies are fun. The Thukhuma Khayeethe (TK) actors were interested in exploring Western comedic forms, and we have always loved the classical Italian commedia dell’arte -- a physical, improvisational genre with strong, codified characters.  Ben Jonson’s ne’er-do-wells have their Italian counterparts: Volpone is Brighella, Mosca is Arlecchino, Voltore the lawyer is Doctore, Corvino is Pantalone, and so on. More relevant, they have their Burmese counterparts as well. As soon as we suggested this play to our collaborators, they identified the Burmese versions. The only issue was… well, in Myanmar, one does not comment on the flaws of the ruling class. It’s still a military dictatorship thinly disguised as a non-military dictatorship (that is, they changed their costumes).

The only theatre allowed in Myanmar for the duration of the regime has been the traditional all-night performances known as a nyint pwe.  Imagine a nine hour show that consists of American Idol, Tales of King Arthur, the Ten Commandments, Swan Lake, and Abbott and Costello, all accompanied by a string quartet, Indonesian gamelan, and a pop-rock band. To my Western eyes, that is the pwe.  

The performances within the pwe are stylized renditions of the lives of Buddhist Saints and old Burmese Kings. Until perhaps this moment, contemporary theatre has been banned for its potential use as a tool for public education and subversion.  Any performances other than the traditional have had to be performed in private and in secret. 

Presenting any sort of “regular” play, like Volpone, would be viewed as something completely new.  Further, there are no longer any venues to present such a thing. The pwe takes place outside on large, temporary stages for an audience ready for an all-night picnic. Everyone knows the stories, so you don’t really need to pay attention. Like a picnic, it’s about friends, food, and merriment.  Would our play fit into the all-night pwe experience?  TK founder Thila Min says no – it would never get sustained attention.

Politically speaking, the TK cast reminded us that much of Volpone takes place in a courtroom, a place not seen on a stage in Myanmar.  On trial are the virtuous young lovers who have been wrongly accused of fraud and licentiousness via the evil machinations of Mosca and the elites. Eventually, the over-the-top greed of the ruling class is their undoing, and they each get punishments befitting their crimes.  Our collaborators noted that presenting a scene where justice is served against the power brokers is a delicate issue!  That unlikely scenario has never been seen before on stage or in real life. In fact, one of the chastised characters is a military man.  Until very recently, performing such a play would have guaranteed jail time. (We assured them that the power brokers in the US rarely get their just deserts either.)  Nonetheless, the final call is in our collaborator’s hands: is Myanmar ready to see such pointed social commentary?  Their resounding response is “yes”, but treading carefully as we go.    

One of the many discussions we had concerned the ending. I should note in preface that we took some liberties in adapting Jonson’s work, including an added scene where the young innocents, Celia and Bonario, are sentenced to death and executed (not in the original). We then see them in the spirit world, and Celia, finding her militant voice against the injustice they have suffered, tries to rally the audience into action.  Meanwhile, Bonario “finds” a magic wand in the audience which allows them to alter the past by magically endowing the lawyer with a conscience (magic indeed). The show is back on track to a near-happy ending.  But in another adaptation, the judge sentences all the greedy nobles to harsh punishments except for Volpone who, despite being the main instigator, is given a $10 fine.  (Again, this is not Jonson’s ending. He punishes Volpone equally). Once again, Celia uses the wand to stop the action and solicits the audience to suggest appropriate punishments for Volpone: justice must be served!    

This tampering with the playwright’s work came from our mutual desire to speak directly with the audience and charge them with some responsibility for action, a new concept since people have been silenced so long. At later rehearsals, there was some unease among our collaborators.  Does our ending suggest a “mob rule” mentality?  Until the recent political thaw, it made sense to criticize the regime, although dangerous to do so.  But now, even though things are hardly rosy, there is the potential for improvement.  Certainly, our friends say, they want to encourage people to find their voice and involve themselves in improving society.  But frankly, the new freedom of expression has led to hate speech against several ethnic groups, particularly the Muslim population. As Thila Min said, “People are happy to have freedoms, but they don’t want to take responsibility. They haven’t learned that freedom has consequences.”  

Our friends were not so much afraid of repercussions from authorities; they just want to be sure that we are encouraging progressive action among the audience. This underscores our responsibility as artists to choose the clearest words, gestures, and images for the message we want to convey. It’s easy to assume that the message we think we are sending is actually the message being received.  


By our departure, we had not altered the ending, but decided to review Celia’s final dialogue with the audience with deeper attention to “spin”; that is, possible interpretations and misinterpretations. As Soe Myat Thu says, “For a funny play, it is very serious.”  
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Note: Thila Min and Soe Myat Thu are co-directors of Thukhuma Khayeethe.

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