In 1985, the Théâtre du Soleil staged a play about one of the most terrible events in contemporary history. An 8-hour-long saga by Hélène Cixous, The Terrible but Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, was created at the Cartoucherie. The mise-en-scène was by Ariane Mnouchkine.
In January 2007 Ashley Thompson started a project with the Théâtre du Soleil to recreate the play in Khmer. The play would use Ariane Mnouchkine’s original mise-en-scène, and the actors would come from the Phare Ponleu Selpak school of Battambang.
While working on the French version in 1985, Ariane Mnouchkine had perhaps secretly hoped the play would someday be performed in Khmer in Cambodia. Under the guidance of Ashley Thompson (a lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies of the University of Leeds, and an expert in Khmer cultural history), a group of promising young artists was found in an exceptional school: the circus students of the Phare Ponleu Selpak school of Battambang.
The Théâtre du Soleil started working with the Phare Ponleu Selpak school through drama workshops. Maurice Durozier and Georges Bigot (who played King Sihanouk in the original French play), were the first to arrive, in December 2007. They were followed in January 2008 by Ariane Mnouchkine, who organized a workshop. She was succeeded in this role by others, including Hélène Cinque and Delphine Cottu, who have worked with the Théâtre du Soleil since 1997.
These first projects planted the seed for the creation of a demanding artistic project with these young Cambodian actors. It would be a long-term collective endeavor. Several meetings with members of the Théâtre du Soleil were held on this, the only play on the recent history of Cambodia.
The Théâtre du Soleil gave the project to Georges Bigot and Delphine Cottu, who worked closely with Hélène Cixous, the writer of the original French play, and Ang Chouléan, the Cambodian translator. Bigot and Cottu drew on their own experience to give the young actors roles based on collective research and stage improvisation. The actor is creator in this democratic and original take on the theater. They themselves played all the characters in order to experience what the actors eventually would, and to better show the actors the way. With the modest means of the theater at their disposal, they taught them to give, to see and to receive, to put their imagination in the service of “visions”. These “visions” have many possible origins: childhood, rituals, artistic traditions, and even memories or stories of the war and the terror it inspired. This was a work of memory. The goal was to have the public (re)discover the terrible but unfinished story of Cambodia and its people, whose present tragedies make the country a major recipient of development aid.