As French director Bernard Rozet explains, the play “Le Cid” is all about the beating hearts of tormented people in love.
This is why the story of Don Rodrigue—who loses the woman he loves for having defended his father’s honor—has touched people of all countries ever since Pierre Corneille wrote it four centuries ago, he says.
But when Rozet embarked on the project of producing this French theatre masterpiece in Khmer with an all-Cambodian cast about a year ago, he realized that the adaptation would require drastic adjustments.
Historical details in the play—set a millennium ago in Spain when that country was under threat by the Moors of West Africa—would mean nothing to a Cambodian audience, Rozet said.
Moreover, the Khmer translation of the text by Hang Thun Hak in the 1960s would make the story nearly impossible to follow by today’s public, said Khmer-language linguist Lim Bun Hok.
This is how matters stood when Rozet made his first trip to Cambodia last December, invited by Guy Issanjou, the former director of the French Cultural Center, to produce Le Cid in Khmer.
Rozet, a busy director who works on plays as well as operas in France and abroad, called this “an unbelievable opportunity” to work in a country he did not know.
Since then, the play—a project of the French Cultural Center—was performed three times in Phnom Penh a week ago; once in Siem Reap on Wednesday; and plans are to take it on a tour of the country next year.
The production started with Rozet adapting the text in French. He decided to shorten the play, eliminating historical details and keeping to the essential: The clashes and love scenes.
Rozet then passed on his adaptation to Lim Bun Hok who made the changes in the Khmer version that, unlike the French text, was not going to be in verse.
Anxious to be faithful to the French text, Hang Thun Hak had translated the play in a literary way that made it hard to speak in a performance, Lim Bun Hok said.
Hang Thun Hak had studied theatre in Paris in the late 1940s and, as Khing Hoc Dy indicates in his 1993 book on Cambodian writers of the 20th century, his life was a drama worth Le Cid’s fictional characters.
A political activist who took to the jungle in 1951 to fight for independence from France, he served as director of the National Theater before becoming dean of the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1966. During the Lon Nol regime, Hang Thun Hak was prime minister for six months in 1972-1973, and was killed by the Khmer Rouge, probably in 1975.
Since Le Cid takes place at the Spanish court, in the play “Hang Thun Hak utilized terms from the Khmer lexical field of royalty, terms that are rarely used in people’s daily life,” Lim Bun Hok said.
“There is a whole jargon, so to speak, used to address the royal family,” Lim Bun Hok said. For example, to say “I” as in “I am,” a person says “khnhom” in daily life, and “toul bang kum” when speaking to a member of the royal family, he said.
This makes Hang Thun Hak’s text quite difficult to understand—beautiful but filled with unfamiliar words, said Moli Ka, a National Theatre performer who plays Elvire in the production.
This was one more reason to simplify and cut the play. Still, the text and Rozet’s ideas for the production would be altered several times before the first performance on Oct 14 in Phnom Penh.
In December, Rozet came to Cambodia to line up the actors. He spent one week at the Royal University of Fine Arts and two weeks at the National Theatre housed at the Bassac Theatre, auditioning dozens of performers.
Six months later, he returned to start shaping the production with the cast of eight, building on actors’ strengths and integrating Cambodian elements in the process. He was back last month for four solid weeks of rehearsals.
At the start actors began to struggle with their characters. Accustomed to risking igniting passionate debates if they deviate from tradition in a performance in Cambodia, the actors were taken aback at first when asked to put their own interpretation on their roles.
“On stage, we need to invent. My vision of theatre is,” he explained, “that it is, above all, an exchange and not just the director saying to the actors ‘go right, go left.’”
It took some time for the Cambodian actors, used to a rigid discipline, to grasp that they could let go and interpret.
The actors also played in front of a black curtain with few props, which Rozet said would make it easier to perform in the provinces next year if Le Cid tours the country.
National Theatre actor Ngeth Socheat faced the task of expressing Don Rodrigue’s anguish over the loss of his beloved Chimene so that the audience would feel his pain.
In each performance, the emotion had to come from within and match the words, and this demands a great deal of an actor, he said.
Lay Sophal, a RUFA student who plays Don Fernand, the king, said he wished he could have observed the behavior of European kings to better interpret one—he had to base his character on the ways of Cambodian royalty he had seen.
In the course of the four weeks, the sword fight became more stylized than in some Western productions, suggesting the tableau-type scenes of traditional Khmer performances.
Rozet made the story unfold on heartbeat tempo that Kay Sokphan would convey with traditional music played on a two-string tro ou and a small drum skor daey.
All this resulted in a play that moves quickly and in broad strokes, the tension sustained throughout as confrontations follow love scenes, and actors fill the stage with all the emotions that this tragic tale warrants but in a sharp and sober way.
As Rozet stated in the performance’s program: “The action takes place as in a dream—or a nightmare—according to a logic that can only belongs and can only happen in theatre.”