The play starts with the performers sitting in a half circle as Lakhaon Yike artists might have done a millennium ago.
As they sing an aching melody as lavish as the richest silk, time fades away and an ageless world rises, filled with pain and laughter, grief and magic.
The play Toeup Sodachan is the love story of two people who were never meant to meet.
It questions both human justice, which obliges a poor man to be the slave of a rich one, and divine justice that takes a child’s mother away, said Deth Thach of the NGO Institute for the Development of Social Sciences in Cambodia.
In the story, a devada deity is forced to come to earth as a human being and serve a man from whom she had stolen a flower.
They fall in love, and the devada helps her love to regain his freedom as he had become the slave of a rich man because of a debt his mother was unable to pay.
As the couple celebrates the birth of their child, the devada is told she must leave earth since her banishment has come to term.
Devastated, the couple parts. The play ends with the man holding their child, asking the heavens what is the justice of divine law that separates a mother and child.
Yike musical theater was never solely about entertainment, said Sok Sokhom, a master of the Yike tradition and adviser to the newly formed Kok Thloak Theatre Company which is staging the play Thursday at the Japan Cambodia Cooperation Center in the grounds of the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
Yike plays were meant to tell people about true love, the way a couple should treat each other and how parents should treat their children, Sok Sokhom said.
Yike reflected on the society of the time, and that is something that is still needed today, he said. “We have many stories that present the society of our ancestors, but now writers should write new stories and songs.”
Staging Toeup Sodachan, which is being produced by the institute and Amrita Performing Arts, is part of a project to revive this ancient form of musical theater, which combines songs and spoken segments.
The project will also extend beyond Thursday’s performance and include research in 10 villages in five provinces to investigate the role Yike once played in Cambodian village life and assess demand today.
In his home village of Dar Por in Takeo province’s Samraong district where, according to village lore, Yike was born, “All people, old and young, knew how to perform Yike,” Sok Sokhom said.
Dar Por village is located in a region with a history of maritime trade and Yike theatre is believed to have started with seafarers.
When Sok Sokhom was growing up in the 1960s, props and costumes were not important. Yike groups would hold plays at pagodas, sitting in a circle until it was their turn to perform, with the audience surrounding them, he recalled.
“Sometimes we would even perform in rice fields because all Yike artists wanted was to perform.”
Then came the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
“All the Yike artists in my district did not dare speak and tried to pass as uneducated people with no knowledge of art,” he said.
Sok Sokhom would later discover a photo of one of his brothers at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh. He could only deduce that his brother, who had received a scholarship to study arts in South Korea, had returned during the Pol Pot regime, he said.
In the 1980s, Yike artists would tour the provinces and perform in Phnom Penh on a regular basis.
From the mid-1980s, Sok Sokhom said, “We sometimes performed two to three times a day at the Bassac Theatre, and to a very big audience that bought tickets to watch the shows.”
Today, Yike is rarely performed, and it takes props and lavish costumes to attract an audience, Sok Sokhom said.
This does not mean that there is no audience for Yike, said Eing Hoeun, who formed the Kok Thloak Theatre Company. Young people may develop a taste for Yike if they see plays more often, he said.
The company was recently created with the goal of performing Yike not only in Phnom Penh but also in the provinces.
It includes about 15 artists and Yike teachers who were or still are affiliated with the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Performing Arts.
Another goal of the project is to open some sort of living museum where performers would live and work, said Deth Thach. The public would be invited to come and watch performers rehearse, costume-makers embroider, or craftsmen make shadow puppets, he said.
The idea of a center is crucial as traditional artists may soon have to leave the Bassac Theatre—where they have been working despite most of the building having been destroyed by fire in 1994.
Kith Meng, chairman of the Royal Group of companies, which includes MobiTel and CTN, struck a deal with the government in which he apparently agreed to renovate the Bassac Theatre in return for getting access to surrounding land.
Contacted Tuesday, Kith Meng said that he could not discuss his plans as he was outside the country.