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Bond Street Theatre's VOLPONE in Myanmar

Stages of Resistance
Joanna Sherman smiles directly into the camera, a splash of blue behind her.

This piece is part of a new Lark blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called 
"Stages of Resistance." This salon welcomes reflections and articles on issues and themes related to making work for live performance in political and 
aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor and/or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this blog series hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more articles and reflections in this series throughout March and early April 2017.

Bond Street Theatre has been collaborating with a daring theatre group in Myanmar, Thukhuma Khayeethe, on a Burmese version of Ben Jonson’s 1605 play about greed and con-artistry, Volpone. Daring because theatre was banned under the military regime as a subversive tool for public education and, even as the country moved toward democracy, the dictatorship was only thinly disguised. Working with Thukhuma Khayeethe (TK) has been a joy, but now we had to consider… Is it safe enough to present our play in public?

Why Volpone? In brief, the title character is a nobleman who seeks to increase his wealth by fooling other greedy noblemen into giving him expensive gifts in the hope that they will be named the sole heir in his will. The grand deceit involves Volpone pretending to be deathly ill, assisted by his sly and considerably more clever servant. We had several reasons for choosing this play. First, comedies are fun, and we have a special place in our hearts for the commedia dell’arte. The TK actors were interested in exploring Western comedic forms, and Ben Jonson’s ne’er-do-wells have their Burmese counterparts as well.

However, in Myanmar, one does not joke about the flaws of the ruling class. Such social commentary has landed many in jail. The TK actors are among a growing crop of actors who have been thirsting for freedom and outside stimulus, having been isolated from the world: the internet was blocked, outside information was censored, and few artists came to share their skills.

Our process began with an exploration of Burmese and Western performance styles and how they might enhance each other in style, character, set, music, dance, and play structure. We studied DVDs of famous zat pwe performances and noticed that they always begin with a nat pwe, a dance to the spirits to get on their good side. So we decided to start with such a dance. The altar to the spirits became Volpone's altar to his gold, since the play opens with him worshiping his stash. We saw similarities between the classical commedia and Burmese forms in their codified postures and attitudes, archetypes and personalities, but the elaborate traditional costumes of Burmese theatre are so much more fabulous. 

Language, of course, was a challenge – would our play be in both English and Burmese? We thought that our physicality would transcend need for translation. Yes and no. We decided the play would be bilingual and, to ensure comprehension, dialogue would be designed to clarify any English spoken. Our Bond Street actors tried their best at Burmese, a subtle, tonal language, but we found that lines spoken in our best Burmese needed reiteration by an actual Burmese-speaker. Translation from Jonson’s old English to Burmese was also a complicated process: translation from Old to modern English, then to American, then highly simplified for translation, then adjusted to Burmese idioms, puns, and character voices. Soe Myat Thu, a TK founder, comedian, and translator (his day job), did an extraordinary job in re-interpreting each character. He also played the servant, an Arlecchino-type, prone to hilarious adlibbing. 

Now, where could we perform? There are no venues for presenting any sort of “regular” play. Could our play fit into a traditional pwe with its stylized renditions of the lives of Buddhist saints and ancient kings? Going to the pwe is an all-night extravaganza, but actual attention to what's on stage drifts in and out. Everyone knows the stories, so no need to pay attention. Would our play fit?  Thila Min, TK co-founder and Director, says it would not – a serious tale (however comical) would not command attention with the pwe crowd.

Politically speaking, the TK cast reminded us that half the play 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 the elites. Eventually, the over-the-top greed of the ruling class is their undoing and they each get punishments befitting their crimes. However, we took quite a few liberties with Jonson’s work so that we could speak directly with the audience and charge them with the responsibility of decision-making as a jury, a new concept since they have been silenced for so long.

At the end of our play, the young lovers are executed (as opposed to Jonson’s happy ending), and we ask the audience if justice has been served and how they would change the outcome. Primarily, our point was that they have a voice now and can stand up for their rights. This especially resonated at our second performance, held in a squatter settlement at the outskirts of Yangon. Here, families who were displaced by Cyclone Nargis or came from poor, rural provinces to seek a better life have landed in makeshift homes of bamboo and palm thatching. Both children and adults gathered to watch the hour and a half long play, fully engaged for the entire show, and clamored to respond at the end. We were happily amazed.

At our last rehearsal, there was some discussion among the cast if perhaps our ending suggested a “mob rule” mentality. We want to encourage people to find their voice and involve themselves in improving the institutions of society, but the new freedom of expression has led to a rise in hate speech against various ethnic groups, not least of which is the Muslim population. We want to be sure that we are encouraging progressive action among the audience members. As Thila Min says, “People are happy to have freedom, but they don’t take responsibility for their actions. They haven’t learned that freedom has consequences.”  

Once again, we see our responsibility as artists to stand up for justice, and to choose the clearest words, gestures and images for the messages we want to convey. It could be easy to mistake the message we are sending for the one we think we are sending. Our post-show dialogue is a vehicle to clarify our message.

The response to the play has been positive on an aesthetic and social level.  Having worked with Thukhuma Khayeethe since 2009, this play was a step forward in our relationship and a new opening for the emergent theatre world in Myanmar. As Soe Myat Thu said at the end, “For a funny play, it is very serious.”