The traditional Khmer opera (yike) “Kakei” tells the story of a beautiful woman of the same name who comes to a nasty end after getting caught up in relationships with three powerful men.
To many Cambodians familiar with the story, the name Kakei is synonymous with female infidelity, and the perils that must inevitably befall women who engage in adultery.
Cambodian Living Arts has put together a new production of the opera based on a more sympathetic portrayal of the Kakei character.
According to Yon Sokhorn, senior program coordinator of arts development at Cambodian Living Arts, the new production offers a more thoughtful and critical analysis of the story for modern, educated audiences.
It portrays Kakei as a victim of her times and by doing so encourages people to try to understand every aspect of a person’s life before passing judgment.
The decision to reinterpret the work has huge significance because the original story of “Kakei” is still taught to Cambodian students as part of the literature curriculum in schools.
“When people hear the name ‘Kakei,’ they always have a negative reaction because Cambodians are taught to think of Kakei as a bad woman.
However, when we perform this opera today, we want audiences to think about what motivates her behaviour: What makes Kakei act the way she does?” Ms Sokhorn said.
Sokhorn continues that while the current production doesn’t condone all of Kakei’s actions, it strives to show that in society in times past, women had no means to express themselves.
Gender equality and sexual rights were nonexistent. Kakei was a victim and ultimately died because she lacked these rights, Ms Sokhorn said.
Kakei is played by 23-year-old Keo Sophanith, a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts. “When I play the role of Kakei, I feel a real sense of injustice. I can really feel the pressure, both mentally and physically. I constantly feel trapped by the power of the king or another man.”
Ms Sophanith said that while Kakei tried to explain her actions, no one would listen to her.
All three men were assumed to be in the right, though she suffered a lot as a result of their actions. The king couldn’t see right from wrong, and wrongly blamed her.
“I hope all men don’t consider women as sex slaves. To make relationships work, partners must listen to each other rather than trading accusations or resorting to violence,” Ms Sophanith said.
Heng Thida, 19, a cast member of the yike opera, said: “Cambodians are always taught to think of Kakei as a bad woman based on her portrayal in a story written by King Ang Duong [a mid-19th-century monarch]. And the moral of the story traditionally has always been that a woman who has more than one male partner must be bad.”
Ms Thida explained that the new production offers a fresh take on the story. “Sometimes we can’t really judge whether a particular action is right or wrong if we haven’t been in that situation, and understand the pressures that person faced. In the story, the king frequently says he loves Kakei, but when she has a problem he doesn’t even listen to her.”
The effect of watching the performance is totally different from reading the book. Ms Thida said the story can be used to show the ways in which women are victimized and that men, not women, should change their perspective. Men can’t be right all the time, Ms Thida added.