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This Anna is allowed
Publication Date : 17-08-2012
Having long been denied access to Anna Leonowens and her perceived slurs against the monarchy, Thais can now see her portrayed onstage. "Siam Mission: The Musical", opening later this month, has already been characterised as a post-colonial version of "The King and I".
The woman who spent six years in the 1860s as the nanny and English tutor to the children of King Mongkut (Rama IV) earned the country's lasting disdain for suggesting in her sensationalistic memoirs that she deserved the credit for Siam's modernisation.
Leonowens also hinted she had a fling with the King, making her tale perfect for escapist American showbiz. It was adapted first on film for Rex Harrison and then on stage and film for Yul Brynner, whose "The King and I" was most memorable (if you've seen it) thanks to Oscar & Hammerstein tunes like "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Getting to Know You".
The ruler of Siam was portrayed as such a chauvinist brute, and given to silliness, that only the first film version, with Harrison, was allowed to be seen by the public here, so that when a film remake was mounted in the late 1990s with Chow Yun Fat and Jodie Foster it had to be shot in Malaysia. It's only been seen in Thailand on pirate video.
So how has Anna Leonowens' fanciful yarn finally broken through the barrier?
A team of Chulalongkorn University theatre professors spent two years researching her life after she'd returned to England, during which time she met King Chulalongkorn during his 1897 European tour. One of her former pupils had ascended the throne as Rama V.
The researchers assembled evidence as to who really deserves the credit for maintaining Siam's independence amid Western colonial threats. That's alluded to in the show's English title "Siam Mission". The Thai title is "Siam Miss Chan", meaning "Siam misses me", which is what the playwrights assume Leonowens believed.
The playwrights are two of the researchers - Parida Manomaiphibul, who teaches the craft, and Dangkamon Na Pombejra, who directed the acclaimed "The Spring Awakening" and "Siam Niramit". The third investigator - vocal coach and musical-theatre specialist Charunee Hongcharu - composed the show's music and conducts a student orchestra.
A fourth professor, Krissara Warissarapuricha, has devised a stage large enough for 40 actors and 25 musicians in a blackbox setting.
Intriguingly, Thailand's favourite singer, Panadda Ruangwut, is portraying Anna Leonowens. "I was reluctant at first," she says of the role. "I mean, I look more Chinese than English! But when I met the two actresses who are portraying my daughter and granddaughter, we all look the same, like a family!"
Panadda was also drawn by the script, which she says is full of historical information she never knew, "and I'm a history buff to begin with".
"I can see now how much trouble our forebears went through so that we today could still be Thai citizens." Panadda appeared in "Tawiphop: The Musical", set in the same period, but says "Siam Mission" is far more astute about history.
When rehearsals began, she says, she struggled to find the right way to portray a 66-year-old Englishwoman. Director Dangkamon told her it could be "symbolic" rather than realistic.
"I'm not supposed to present Anna's physical appearance but her subconscious, and in that sense she still regarded herself as young, smart and vibrant."
Panadda admits that acting is a challenge for her. "I'm a professional singer, not an actress. I have to make sure I sing the way I speak, and that I communicate the meaning of each and every word."
So who plays the King? No one! His side of the story is told through three noblemen who accompanied him on the historic visit to Europe.
In Thai with no English translation, "Siam Mission: The Musical" runs from August 29 to September 9, daily except Monday, at the Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts in Bangkok.