- Communities of Imagination: Contemporary Southeast Asian Theatres by Catherine Diamond
Author Catherine Diamond began this project with the plan to spend three to four weeks in each Southeast Asian country with the goal of seeing as many performances as possible. She declares, "I adopted this inductive approach because I wanted to remain as free from expectation as possible, and impose neither theories nor subjective judgments too precipitously before I had had a chance to see the range of theatre on offer" (p. vii). Diamond went back to each country several times in order to see more theatre and to conduct follow-up interviews, but her initial plan gives insight into the structure and purpose of the book: to provide a comprehensive overview of the many different kinds of performance that make up theatre in Southeast Asia today. The strength of this book lies in the vivid descriptions of a variety of performances that favor neither traditional nor contemporary performance genres—but rather examine theatre in Southeast Asia as a multilayered tapestry. In order to link the different countries and chapters, Diamond invokes Benedict Anderson's notion of "imagined communities"; throughout the book she argues that theatre makers create a community across the region through their use of the imagination to bridge tradition and modernity within contemporary culture.
Many books on Asian theatre struggle to compare and contrast theatre that could be considered traditional against newer genres of performance that have appeared in the last century. Diamond defines traditional performance as "the theatre considered authentic to the peoples of Southeast Asia before [End Page 233] European intervention" (p. 2). She contrasts "traditional theatre" to what she describes as the four prevailing types of twenty-first-century theatre; these are postmodern theatre, postcolonial theatre, intercultural theatre, and social action theatre. In the introduction, Diamond perhaps simplifies the complex array of performance genres and cultures that make up the region of Southeast Asia, but I also very much appreciate her attempt to define terms and to establish boundaries.
Southeast Asia provides a complicated object of study because of the many diverse histories, cultures, political formations, geographies, and of course theatre and performance genres found there. There are many differences and similarities, and deciding how to organize a book that deals with the entire region is a dilemma. James Brandon organized his book Theatre in Southeast Asia (1967) by themes such as "puppetry" and "social contract," which allows the reader to compare and contrast similar performance phenomena across national borders. In Diamond's book each country gets its own chapter, and she groups her chapters and countries together under three different yet overlapping themes in an attempt to foreground some of the regional trends. The different topics allow for interesting connections and comparisons that would certainly not be limited to the countries within that section but assist the reader in finding a way into the vast subject. Addressing one country in each chapter also allows for excellent comparisons and contrasts and reveals the rich amount of theatre happening in each of these areas.
The first theme, the increased participation of women in the performing arts, applies to the countries of Thailand, Vietnam, and Bali. In the chapter on Thailand she contrasts two characters, Mae Naak and Phra Ram, as two key opposing archetypes of female and male that appear in myriad theatrical forms and stories. Through and in opposition to these two archetypes, Diamond describes how much of Thai theatre represents anxiety about traditional versus modern values that come into conflict both inside and outside their society. In the chapter on Vietnamese theatre, Diamond starts with gender by examining the work of female theatre artist Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, but that is not the only focus. Rather, this chapter provides an excellent overview of many of the different genres of Vietnamese theatrical forms, such as cai luong, kich noi, and hat boi. Diamond argues through rich examples that actors "create a distinctly Vietnamese style" by combining Stanislavski based methods of characterization with Vietnamese character types (p. 73). The...