Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Les Misérables, released 11 January

After its extreme success on the stage – having been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries, and in 21 languages across the globe - Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables finally hits our cinema screens this Friday.

With an impressive cast list including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter, the film will deliver the epic story of ex-prisoner Jean Valijean in 19th century Paris, as he meets factory worker Fantine and agrees to care for her daughter whilst being tracked down by policeman Javert for breaking his parole. The film is released in cinemas on January 11th.

Circus

Kooza, Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP, Jan 5 - Feb 10 2013

Cirque du Soleil brings their show Kooza to the UK for the first time this week at the Royal Albert Hall. The spectacle taps into their origins, combining a mix of the traditional acrobatics and clowning. The visuals have been described as ‘electrifying’ and ‘exotic’, while the show itself is to depict the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner who strives to belong. All culminating in a spectacular display of contortionism, high wire and a rather ominous-sounding ‘Wheel of Death’.

Theatre

Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton Street SW1Y 4DN, Jan 12 – 6April 2013

This is the first Pinter play to be performed in the freshly-named Harold Pinter Theatre, previously known as the old Comedy Theatre. Actress Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson join forces in the “seductive and compelling” drama, Old Times. The pair had previously collaborated in Betrayal, also written by the late playwrite.

Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell complete the minimal cast, with the two female actresses swapping between the roles of Anna and Kate from show to show. The play tells the story of three friends reminiscing over past times, which results in conflicting recollections and the reawakening of sexual tensions.

Opera

La Bohème, Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD, 5 Jan – 12March 2013

The Royal Opera House opens its doors for John Copley’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème. The tear-jerker set in Paris in the 19th century sees Rodolfo, a meagre poet, meet Mimì, a seamstress, and fall passionately in love. Their happiness, however, is threatened when Rodolfo learns that Mimì is gravely ill. Reviews have deemed the Opera as “fresh and natural", and describe the singing as “beautifully shaped”.

Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4ES , 9-19 January 

The English National Ballet begin their tour of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty in London this week; with choreography from Kenneth Macmillan alongside Tchaikovsky’s best-loved ballet music, including the Rose Adagio, and the music that was used as the melody for Once Upon a Dream as featured in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Extravagant costumes and detailed set design help to tell the legendary fairytale of Princess Aurora who must endure the curse of sleeping for a hundred years, after pricking her finger on a needle on her sixteenth birthday. The ballet has been described as a “triumph” that would “inspire not one but two generations”.

A previous performance of opera La Bohème. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder