Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Nattayasal Hun Lakhon lek". Joe Louis Puppet Theatre from Bangkok

(translation from Spanish by Tadeo Berjón)

I visited Bangkok in December 2006 and I had the opportunity of exploring a whole Performing Art culture which, until that moment, was unknown to me and to my idea of world Performing Arts. The biggest surprise was that Thailand gave such special significanceto its own Performing Arts and to its own creators as places like Japan, Korea or Taiwan.

I knew about Thailand’s very famous Shadow theatre, Nang yai, and its special theatrical game backstage (with the puppeteers dancing, unbeknownst to the public, while they are performing), but my travel would be to another part of the country, from Bangkok through the North. I was looking for the other theatre and I found it with its fantastic world around it; but I also found another theatre with puppets and my discovery was so interesting that marked my memories about Thailand forever: this puppet theatre was a kind of fusion of the other Thai performing arts, unique in itself, it was the Nattayasal Hun Lakhon lek, best know as the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre.

But, if I want to talk about Joe Louis and his Puppet Theatre, first I have to talk about Bunraku, that exceptional Japanese puppet theatre.

I can’t assure that Bunraku is the “best” Puppet theatre of the world, but in my point of view this theatre has become my point of reference for appraising the quality of performance techniques of other Puppet theatres in Asia at least (1). Beyond the idea of taste, there is the cold reality of the technique and the handling of the puppets, the structural complexity of the drama and the whole production in all of that Bunraku is the peak of evolution, because of its fineness, its elegance, because of its details and its cleanliness (2) (3).

And it is in Thailand, with Joe Louis Nattayasal Hun Lakhon lek (or the Joe Louis Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre) where I have seen again a puppet theatre with a beauty, strength, and capacity that I’ve only experienced seeing Bunraku. It is a theatre that in one sense has influence from the Japanese or has at least similar stage principles: the conceptualization of the staging and the way of achieving it. The differences between them are evident; coming from different cultures their esthetics are not the same, as well as their link to religion and spectacle; Bunraku is more linked to spectacle and Kabuki while Nattayasal hun lakhon lek is more linked to religious spectacle. Bunraku has an evolution of 400 years while Nattayasal Hun Lakhon lek theatre is only 100 years old.

If we want to talk about the history of Thai puppet theatre we’ll find that it is a little bit risky, that all data is lost in mythical narrations of their participants without much objectivity. In any case, it is possible to reconstruct history with some facts we are sure of and making a chain of them.

It is known that puppet theatre has been present in Thailand for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the end of 19th Century that a real dramatic style appeared. Before that, puppet theatre was a kind of spectacle where life and fantasy were shown with puppets, with literary images on stage. The world remembers well how puppet dancers filled the western imagination about the ancient world of Siam, with elephants and dancers that danced with characteristic Thai music and dressed with amazing and colorful costumes of green and gold.

There are records about some Chinese-style Puppet troupes performing only for the Thai Court during 18th and 19th Centuries, and some other low popular theatrical forms of Puppet theatre performing all over the country in fairs and religious events.

In 1905 the reknowned puppeteer of the Thai royal court, Krea Sapatawanich, created a new puppet theatre imitating Khon, the Classic masked dance-theatre of Thailand which reached its highest level of complexity at the middle of 19th Century during the period of King Rama II. Using practically all the elements of this theatre, master Krea gave Puppet Thai theatre the possibility of reaching, as Khon did, the highest level of quality when it comes to performing Arts.

The beauty of Khon is incomparable; brother to Khmer and Burmese dance-theatre and with its religious-stage origin in India’s Ramayana, it possesses fineness and complexity in its creation, in is physical codification, in its costumes, music, and use of narration. The visual aesthetics that we can observe on the murals of the Royal Palace in Bangkok, for example, attain movement and life through Khon’s magic.

The modenisation achived by master Krea offered Thailand a real world-class puppet theatre. Nevertheless, the political situation at the time in which it originated prevented its expansion. Thailand was living a modernisation and westernisation process that caused the loss of artistic movements based on nationalist ideas or on religious and cultural siamese traditions (including master Krea’s puppet theatre). Little by little, the real puppet theatre fell out of favour with the king (all-powerful during those years) until, disappointed at its decline, Krea decided to put a radical end to his creation, destroying his puppets. It is said that, before his death in 1929, he performed a rite in which he cursed those who would try to imitate or continue his theatre; that day he threw into the Chao Phraya river (Bangkok’s main river) 100 of his puppets. And from those times darkness reins in the realm of Thai puppet theatre, surrounding it with a halo of mystery and superstition.

Master Krea’s widow zealously kept during her whole life, in her private collection, 30 of those legendary puppets, which were inherited by her only daughter. Years later, at the end of her life and knowing she had no descendants, master Krea’s daughter desperately looked for someone who could continuo with what her father created and destroyed, In 1985 she met a reknowned Thai actor, Sakom Yangkhiawsod, known as Joe Louis (Louis is an English mispronounciation of the Thai surname Liew), who had worked as a child in the company of the master puppeteer, and convinced him to continue with the lost tradition, giving him the 30 puppets that were her father’s property.

Form 10 years Joe Louis concentrated on rebuilding master Krea’s theatre, retaking all the elements he could, both from his personal memory as well as the base of it all, Khon. Since Khon was still a living theatre, the structural source was at hand, waiting to be imitated and studied to be adapted once more. The stories from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana, were also there, ready for use (4). With 7 sons and 2 daughters, in a patriarchal culture, Joe Louis had the human resources he needed to create his new puppet theatre company.

His theatre was so successful that in 1966 he was officially called a “National Artist”, which in Thailand is as important as the “national living treasure” title of Japan, for example.

In the year 2000 his house and theatre catch fire and all his puppets are lost in the fire, with just one of the precious puppets surviving the flames. It is said that Joe Louis explained the fire as a curse from master Krea’s. Yet, superstition doesn’t keep him from continuing what he had already started; he’d have to begin all over again. But disgrace brought with it a positive tinge: Joe Louis, by having to re-create the Thai puppet theatre, starts making his own contributions, which are based on two main premises: “to give more life to the puppets” and to keep the cultural tradition that master Krea’s puppet theatre offered (5). He worked enthusiastically on both the materials from which the puppets are built, as well as on the technique to give them more vitality.

The puppets get most of their movement from their manufacture. The average height of the puppets is 50cm (6) and the basic material for making them is papier maché. Aluminum rolls joined by wires are used to give movement to the neck, the head and the mouth, while the hands, arms and the joints of wrists and legs are handled through sticks.

The hand movements are evermore refined, similar to the hand motions in Thai dances, which give great importance to their codification.

Every puppet is handled by three puppeteers dressed in black (but who are visibly present on stage): one moves the head and the left arm, the other the legs, and a third one the right arm. The three puppeteers dance with Lakhon movements, which is the traditional Thai dance (7), while they handle the puppets on stage.

Live traditional Thai music and song is entwined with specialized narrators who follow the style of the Khon dance-theatre.

Music, songs and fighting in “Mayarap”

The theatre created by Joe Louis is as complex as any other great Asian stage expression.

According to the theory of master Joe Louis, and using the Thai terms, Hun lakhon lek is a sum of different arts:

- Hadtasin (puppet creation),
- Phraneedsin (puppet costumes),
- Nadtasin (puppet handling),
- Ketatsin (music),
- Mantanasin (stage and scenography arranging), and
- Hadtasin (the giving of life to the puppets)

Rama Dance at “Mayarap”

Hadtasin (or the giving of life to puppets) possesses in itself dark and strange aspects, involving certain rituals for achieving the soul of the puppet, like clapping thrice like in some religious Thai rituals, or performing a ritual for master Krea before the show, to placate his curse.

His puppet theatre began to be known and respected for its unrivaled beauty and its technical complexity, as well as for its originality. In 2004 Joe Louis’s company achieves, under the sponsorship of princess Galyani Vadhana, the title of Natttayasal, or “traditional”, and in 2006 it wins a world puppet theatre prize in Prague.

Joe Louis died in May 2007, leaving behind a theatre with a well established style, a “classical” style, and with an influence strong enough to be carried on. His strong presence shows that the creation of a traditional theatre, be it a puppet or a human theatre, has more to do with creative ability and the conjunction of a region’s arts that its creator manages, more than with an idea of the evolution of performing arts through time (8).

Video with a general view of the theatre of Joe Louis:

Videos provided by compulsivetraveler.tv

Joe Louis’s theatre as a touristic experience:

(1) My experience in Japan was blessed with, besides the performances I saw, a demonstration of the movements and the basic structure of this kind of theatre, with images of such magic and masterful handling of a dramatic climax that they’ve been burned into my memory.
(2) I’m referring to the puppet theatre that uses three-dimensional puppets, and my statements should not be taken as referring to shadow theatre.
(3) Some might object my appraisal of Bunraku as a point of reference for technical quality when it comes to puppet theatres, due to the existence of Chinese puppet theatres.
The puppet theatres of Mainland China, though still alive, exist within a chaos created by modernisation and the heritage of the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s; the technique has been handed down, yes, but cleanliness and quality have almost disappeared through time. The theatres of this new China have either modernized or stagnated, quality (from my point of view) has been lost, there is some tradition left as continuity in some provincial towns and cities. There is still some beauty left, but technical development has stopped. In Mainland China there is no puppet theatre left with the complexity and technical quality that Beijing Opera or Kunqu have.
That is the reason I spoke of Bunraku; in Japan, Bunraku is a puppet theatre of the same quality level as Noh or Kabuki theatre.
If the Chinese puppet theatre is the origin of all traditional theatre in China, then, from my point of view, the living origin has been lost.
(4) Among the pieces presented at the famous Suan Lum Night Bazaar (a night bazaar in Bangkok) there were “Mayarap”, “The myth of Rahoo and the moon eclipse”; for 2008 they were preparing “The birth of Ganesha”, but I’m not sure if it’s already on or not.
(5) Japanese researcher Yamashita, who has studied Joe Louis’s theatre, holds that its main contribution is the modernising of the Thai puppet theatre while maintaining tradition (which would set it apart from Bunraku, which in 100 years hasn’t changed or modernised)). This “modernisation” is based on points that could be somewhat dangerous: you can see it in the use of certain stage effects like video and animation, and some extravagant colouring on mythical monsters; the performance allows itself some comical ad-lib and, at the end of the show, there is some playful interaction with the public. I have called them dangerous because of our idea of respect for tradition but, in the theatre of Joe Louis, created 20 years ago with elements from Thai stage culture, can we still call it a tradition in the sense of a continuous evolution in direct contact with its past? up to what point will these modern contributions turn the theatre into a lower quality product? We don’t know yet.
(6) Even though they’re called small puppets, many of the original ones were more than 1 metre tall.
(7) The name Hun Lakhon is actually a version of Lakhon dance for small puppets. Lakhon is a kind of dance-theatre with its origin in military dances, with martial arts movements, which evolved in its fusion with religion with very stylised drama-dances which culminated in the creation of a dramatic-performing genre called Khon, the famous dance-theatre of Thailand. And so Hun Lakhon is Khon theatre with its base on Lakhon dance and performed with small sized puppets.
(8) Surin Yangkhiaosot, one of the children of Khru Sakhon, said: “we’re trying to communicate universally to the public of Hun Lakhon Lek the same way ballet does, telling a story and bringing the most emotional effect possible to the audience by using a minimum of verbal language”.


  1. i love this post!! thank you so much!!
    hi from papermoon puppet theatre, yogyakarta-indonesia

  2. Thanks to you for reading.
    I'd love to visit Yogyakarta and see more theatre.


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