Cars and motorbikes stand parked in the main lobby, obscene graffiti has been scrawled in the corridors and trees grow from where the stage used to be. It has taken a long fall since its heyday, and now the fat lady is finally singing for Phnom Penh’s Bassac Theater in its current form.
A bright blue fence will shield the theater from view when the new National Assembly building, located just across the road, is inaugurated in coming months. Those still using the historic but burned-out theater as rehearsal space have been told to leave.
Khim Sarith, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, said Sunday that local media and banking tycoon Kith Meng plans to develop a new “cultural center” at the site of the theater, which was gutted by fire in 1994 but has remained a working rehearsal space for hundreds of actors and musicians.
A man answering the phone of Kith Meng, who owns the Royal Group of companies, said he was too busy to speak to reporters Sunday and Monday.
In 2005, the Culture Ministry accepted a transfer deal for the land around the Bassac Theater on condition that the theater be renovated, retaining its original name and its unique 1960s, New Khmer Art style. In return for the renovation work, officials said at the time, Kith Meng would get an undisclosed amount of land around the theater to build a conference center and office buildings.
Artists at the theater have now been told they will be moved to a new state theater under construction on Mao Tse-tung Boulevard, leaving many wondering what will befall the Bassac Theatre.
Saroeun Soush, managing director of Asia Real Property Co, Ltd, said the two hectares of land on which the theater stands are worth $1,800 per square meter, which totals approximately $36 million.
During a visit Sunday afternoon, the Bassac was almost deserted. Upstairs in the entrance foyer, which is still architecturally striking despite its grubbiness, a lone guard was making drum skins.
A petition is due to be handed to Prime Minister Hun Sen today to protest at the $300 compensation per head being offered to the artists working at the theater in exchange for their agreeing to move to the new theater, said Ieng Sithul, director of the Khmer Actress Association.
“We are very sad that the ministry has sold the theater to a private company,” Ieng Sithul said.
And, she said, “We want $700 each to move.”
Khim Sarith said it would not be possible to meet those demands as there was only $100,000 set aside by the Culture Ministry to compensate the roughly 320 staff.
A dance trainer working in the theater, who asked not to be named, described the decrepit building as “like a hospital is to a doctor. This a special place for me and for all artists.”
Ith Cham Roeun, deputy director of the Culture Ministry’s department of performing arts, said the move to the new 5,000-square-meter theater, which will have 300 seats, would be a good one.
“I think people should accept this will be a positive move,” he said, adding: “There is no future in this current structure.”
You Muoy, a local NGO worker who has campaigned for the preservation of the theater, said that if the original cannot be renovated, it should be rebuilt elsewhere in its original style.
“This is a landmark piece of Cambodian heritage,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)