Under the tin roof of a sweltering shed at the Royal University of Fine Arts, a dozen students stand frozen in a tense tableau.
Blades of sunlight pierce gaps in the plank walls, the only illumination on the wooden stage. A raised wooden platform is barely visible in the murky light.
The actor on the platform is the king, and those arrayed around him, his court. A powerful drumbeat hurtles toward a moment of crisis, string music soaring wildly above it.
The students are rehearsing Yike drama, a form of musical theater popular before the wars but rarely seen today. Yike uses classical costumes, dance and music to dramatize timeless themes.
The students, along with the better-known and better-funded National Theater, are working to revive Yike, and the new play they are rehearsing will be performed for the first time during Khmer New Year.
The students’ play, “Preah Ang Chey,” deals with ambition, treachery, and the way the lust for power corrupts and ultimately destroys people. Written and directed by drama professor Chan Sarin, it uses ancient techniques to tell a story that still resonates today.
“It is a political story,” Chan Sarin says. “In Cambodian society, we have had conflicts over seizures of power. We want to educate people” that force is not the way to resolve problems, he said.
“In this drama, no one is killed at the end.”
A single performance of “Preah Ang Chey” is scheduled for the Center for Culture and Vipassana in Takhmau, a half-hour’s drive south of Phnom Penh on Route 2, this Wednesday at 4 pm. Although the production will be in Khmer, the program notes will include a synopsis in English.
Chheng Phon, a former actor who also serves as Minister of Culture and current head of the National Election Commission, established the center in 1994 to preserve Cambodian art and promote Buddhist meditation. Each year he holds a cultural festival to showcase traditional arts.
Before radio, before TV, before karaoke, Cambodians flocked to Yike performances, with their Shakespearean blend of drama and romance, tragedy and humor, music and dance.
The roots of Yike extend as far back as the Cham empire of the 5th century. Its modern form dates back about a century, when different forms of musical theater became popular in Southeast Asia. Some were performed by traveling troupes; others found permanent homes in city theaters.
Yike was one of the best-loved of the estimated 20 forms of Cambodian musical theater, according to Fred Frumberg, a consultant to the university and the National Theater on theatrical productions.
The Khmer Rouge regime devastated Yike, as it did so much else. Most of the country’s artists were slaughtered, and many of the old plays and costumes were destroyed.
After the Vietnamese drove out the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the few surviving Yike artists pooled their knowledge to try to keep the art form alive. During the 1980s, a few Yikes were performed, including a modern drama called “Suffering of Gibbons.”
That play, performed in 1985, was Chan Sarin’s introduction to Yike. He had trained in both modern drama and Bassac theater when he was cast in “Suffering of Gibbons.” The hugely popular play toured the country and drew thousands.
“Preah Ang Chey” is the second Yike written by Chan Sarin. His first, “The Elephant Trainer,” won a national competition last year and was performed in Phnom Penh as well as in the provinces.
The new threat to Yike is far less brutal than the Khmer Rouge, but may turn out to be more deadly in the end. Television and videos swept the nation in the 1990s, and people abandoned live performances for the screen.
Chan Sarin hopes his new work can help reverse that trend.
Yike is important to society, he says, because of the way it uses ancient stories to teach modern morals; a good Yike has something to teach everyone, from the highest political leader to the poorest peasant.
“People don’t know how good Yike is,” he says. “The performers from the school are very good.”
Today about 35 students study Yike at the university. Most of them have parts in “Preah Ang Chey,” the story of a king’s son who wishes to renounce earthly power and ambition for the quiet life of a monk.
The Yike repertoire includes 85 songs, he says. The author of a new Yike chooses songs to create dramatic effects, rewriting the lyrics to suit the specific show.
Yike uses songs and dances to enliven the proceedings, as when the solemn stateliness of the king’s court is disrupted by a singing, dancing Chhayam procession, which traditionally leads people to a religious ceremony.
As the music dies away, the young prince Ang Chey pleads for his father’s permission to follow the life of the spirit:
“Father, I want to respect you and beg you to allow me to become a monk,” he says.
“My son, I have only you,” replies the king. ”I don’t want you to leave me.”
Ang Chey then sings a song: “Please give me your blessing … for the prosperity of the nation,” before resuming the discussion.
“I want to keep the kingdom for you,” says the king. “Who will take the throne?”
“I don’t want the throne,” pleads Ang Chey. “Let me find peace!”
The king eventually gives in, more or less gracefully. But it’s not going to be that easy. While Ang Chey disappears into the forest, followed by his cousin, Santeh Devi—the girl who loves him hopelessly—the plot thickens.
The king’s madly ambitious brother, Santeh Devi’s father, stages a coup and seizes the throne. In a scene of mounting frenzy, he outlines his plan for world domination, roaring “This throne will be mine! Mine! Mine!” as an offstage chorus sings, “Ambition is like fire … ambition leads to death!”
The next scene, a comic interlude between scenes, breaks the tension with some inspired silliness while a pair of comedians also comment on the unfolding plot.
A good Yike performance plays on all the emotions, weaving elements of romance, melodrama, suspense and comedy through the dominant tragedy.
It is accompanied by 12 large drums and a stringed instrument, the tro u, as well as choruses, dancers, and a set of principal actors who sing as well as act.
The university’s students have no money for performances and the school owns only one drum. Everything else must be rented, from the elaborate costumes to instruments and scenery.
Chheng Phon is paying the costs for this production of “Preah Ang Chey.” But Frumberg is trying to find NGO support to make the school’s program independent.
“They’ve drawn up a very complete budget, and the total is $4,300,” he says. That amount would allow the department to own its own costumes, musical instruments and scenery.
Meanwhile, the students practice in the dusty shed, which has no electricity or water. The only visible amenity is a small blackened tea-kettle sitting on a charcoal cooker in a grubby corner.
The way Yin Vutha’s eyes shine, the shed might as well be a palace. “Yike is in my heart. It is my talent,” says the 22-year-old, who plays the king’s wicked brother with gusto. “I have wanted to do this since I was 15.”
He knows his prospects for earning a living as a Yike actor are slim, but hopes the government will find him a job. He and the others admit shyly that they wouldn’t mind becoming film stars, either, if Cambodia’s film industry should ever revive.
Meanwhile 20-year-old Keo Panharoth, who plays the lovelorn Santeh Devi, says the students know they may have to work in music videos or television to make a living, but are proud of helping revive Yike.
Kham Sokueang, who plays the spiritual Ang Chey, says he knows Yike is not as popular as foreign television shows or videos.
But, says the 22-year-old fiercely, “I hope Yike lives forever. “And if there is support from the people, it will.”