Melbourne Festival: A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol

Arts Centre Melbourne’s Hamer Hall was a very fitting space for hosting the world premiere of a performance that is grand yet intimate, A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol.

It has been almost four decades since the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Bangsokol is the first major symphonic work to address this legacy of pain.

Acclaimed filmmaker Rithy Panh and renowned composer Him Sophy are both survivors of the years of massacre under the Khmer Rouge regime. Their emotional and artistically professional visions as composer and director of A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol, are communicated thoughtfully in this performance which fuses the traditional bangsokol—a Buddhist rite bringing peace to the dead—with the Western requiem. Together they have gathered an international host of collaborators to create a truly immersive experience for the audience.

There is a diverse array of talent involved in the performance. Members include traditional instrumentalists, the Taipei Philharmonic choir, Metropolis Ensemble, captivating solo vocalists, endangered Khmer funeral music, such as kong skorsmot, and pin peat, live performance displays and everyone is from a multitude of backgrounds and age groups, two young performers are children.

Before the performance, as an audience member, you are invited to wear a white bangsokol shroud around your shoulders, to be worn for the duration of the performance. In line with ritual, at the end of the night, you are to leave it on your seat, the instruction card reads ‘Once this skin is shed, bless arises’. All performers do the same as they enter the stage.

There is an almost dream-like quality to the performance as the collective voices, along with occasional layers of pre-recorded voices and the musical forms grow and fade into sequences. They are accompanied by screens of imagery related to Cambodia during positive periods and the years of destruction and genocide, to nature and to poetry; shown written in Khmer and English translation. You feel a sense of hope in the beginning and near the end as the voices rise and the beauty in Cambodian culture and livelihood is reflected in imagery but there is also a lasting confrontation portrayed through solemn music and imagery of the very real loss and destruction suffered by many.

The process of mourning is personified in Sophy’s musical score and Panh’s direction. Portraits of genocide victims are held by each member of the large choir and commemorated as they are slowly placed towards the front of stage. Colourful visual displays are saved until the end of performance as the poignant tones grow hopeful once again. There is a somewhat sense of closure as the youngest performers lead the final sequence, invoking a sense of optimism through children, generations remember and rebuild through culture.

A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol presented their world premier during Melbourne Festival. From here, they will continue to circulate world-wide with their next shows being held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Philharmonie de Paris. A highly commendable performance for people of all ages, especially if you have interests in Cambodia, history or theatrical, traditional and musical fusion.

9/10

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