8 Jun 2009

The Ligay Theatre Experience

Last weekend I paid a short visit to the village of a Thai friend for a marathon wake in honour of three members of his extended family who had recently died. The village is half way between Korat and Buriram and in what is generally referred to as Isaan, the north-eastern part of Thailand and its agricultural heartland. Thais are not particularly squeamish about death and on arrival I was shown a wall of photographs that included scenes from road accidents with bodies in various states of dismemberment. A certain amount of stitching was needed before being embalmed and placed in their refrigerated coffins – Thailand is hot, so between death and cremation it is absolutely necessary that the body be kept cool.

The actual cremations took place previously so that the weekend was dedicated to eating and drinking and, on Saturday night, fireworks and a local theatrical production. Although I mention drinking, it seemed like the local police were making a point of stamping out alcohol within the temple grounds. The Thai government has many problems on its hands so they divert attention away from this by implementing petty laws that annoy people even more. Alcohol and tobacco prices have recently shot up, but in a country where it is easy to buy locally produced 'white spirit' at a fraction of the price of a bottle of cheap whisky, putting up taxes is just going to increase the production of this home-made 'rice vodka'. Anyway, in most villages the civic centre is the temple – there is no such thing as the market square. People are always well-behaved and respectful inside the temples themselves, but the temple grounds are obviously used for funeral and wedding parties as well as for other festivities. A party without alcohol is somewhat like a funeral without a corpse. So, in the spirit of freedom and ignoring regulations many people bring small bottles of water with them... filled with 'white spirit', of course.

The centre-piece of the weekend was the fireworks and then a production of Thai Ligay (Likay) theatre. The firework display was short and cacophonous, as if war had broken out in this tiny village. I suspect the bangers were designed for Bangkok and best appreciated standing one kilometre away. Many Thais were cupping their hands over their ears – if it was loud for them then it was LOUD! Just as everyone's brain stopped ringing the band started up. I can't name every instrument but at the forefront was the Thai xylophone and a kind of Thai oboe or clarinet, usually heard pumping up the tempo during muay thai boxing matches. Now, I've been to many concerts in Thailand and the art of having an enjoyable experience is to find a place to sit where you are not deafened by the speaker system. The job of sound engineer seems superfluous here – just yank up the bass and treble and set the volume to maximum. Thais think this sounds good but when the sound gets clipped and distorted then it needs a more subtle tuning. Never happens! Reminded me of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the rock band is best heard from a neighbouring solar system... and even then best to be inside a nuclear bunker. When the 'singing' started it was like listening to a xylophone on speed accompanied by dogs barking. OK, this wasn't my cup of tea but I was supported in my reactions by the other Thais in my party who come from a different region - this was not just Thai culture, this was local culture! I went as far away as possible to see if it sounded any better, and was tolerable at the edge of the temple precinct wall. But then I saw a couple of kids creeping away to play with each other that I didn't feel like being accused of voyeurism.

Ligay is a traditional form of theatre. It goes on for hours! I think this play started around 9 pm and was told it finished about 5 am. I think that some Burmese puppet theatre is similarly epic. The actors are dressed in the most colourful and sparkling Thai costumes, giving them a regal or other-worldly quality. Most Ligay stories are like soap operas and deal with love lost and found, treachery and betrayal, and usually some kind of moral tale at the end. I think, from the little I could understand, that this story was eventually going to lead up to one of the characters becoming a hermit, but I'm not certain. The story itself is told in a mixture of singing and speaking (sounded more like shouting) and sprinkled with humour and slapstick to keep the punters happy.

Now, as this was the first time I'd experienced Ligay theatre I had to check if there was any further information online. I could find very little except that each play seems to be one long experience in improvisation! It remains very much a local tradition with the actors going through lengthy apprenticeships rather than having formal rehearsals and learning their lines from scripts. I will no doubt return to the village at some point and see if I can tune in to this Ligay culture – I suspect there are also few recordings as the play without the theatre is only half an experience. Luckily, my Thai friends agreed that it was very loud, but that they didn't mind it. I therefore left after an hour or so – could still hear it from my bed half a kilometre away.

After skirting around the experiences of the weekend I've actually left out the most important thing – probably the one thing that would take me back. Actually, my friend is now the head-man of the village so will see little of him back in Sakeo and will be guaranteed a warm and friendly stay whenever I choose to go back. But I have also got to know a little about his past, parts of which he has alluded to before without fully expanding on it. In a country that is predominantly Buddhist it has struck me as a little disappointing that I have not found anything more esoteric than vipassana meditation. Not till now.

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