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The Perfect Despot




By Andrew Biggs

The phone call came in the evening more than a month ago.

“It’s Somtow,” said Somtow Sucharitkul, maestro extraordinaire, doyen of Opera Siam, popular author of sc-fi, talented elder statesman of the Thai art world.

“I’m thinking of putting on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Full orchestra. I’m wondering if you’d be interested in a lead role.”

I had to cup a hand over my mouth to contain the squeal of excitement.

It was the phone call I’d been waiting for all my life. Finally, after hanging around the fringe of the Art World all my life, somebody — maestro Somtow no less! — was recognizing my innate artistic talent. No more pathetic walk-on parts on Thai soap operas. Radio voiceovers begone!

And what better person to play Jesus Christ than me?

In the split second after Somtow uttering “lead role”, I went into rapid forward planning. I could wear a long blonde straggly wig. I could sign up to Slim Up and lose 10 kg before opening night. I could even whip up a great costume from the dusty old curtains in the maid’s bedroom – she’d have to put up with early morning sunlight but she really should be getting up earlier anyway.

Beneath my rough exterior I’ve always thought of myself as a Jesus figure. I have flashes of benevolence, and like Jesus I have dabbled in prostitution. While I have never walked on water, there have been mornings, usually Sundays, where I have awoken feeling like I’d risen from the dead.

Such were the thoughts buzzing through my head until the Maestro quickly shot them down.

“I don’t mean Jesus Christ. That’s already been cast. I mean the role of King Herod.”

Ah, yes, well let that be a lesson in English to all my younger readers. Go back and read Somtow’s quote, and you will see where I slipped up. I didn’t hear “a lead role”. I heard “the lead role”.

King Herod? The fat, flamboyant, eccentric, evil cynic who sends Jesus on the path to crucifixion? The one that dances to a ragtime song with a bevy of deviants? That King Herod? Looks like the maid gets to sleep in after all.

This is not the first time in my life I got my hopes up in the theatrical world, only to have them dashed on the rocks of foolish pride.

Your columnist once starred in a popular Thai movie. At the time I was working for BEC-Tero Entertainment in the television department. The company also had a movie department which was enjoying huge success with the movies Bang Rajan and Tears Of The Black Tiger.

I was in the TV production department and one day I received a visit from two of the movie division’s producers. “We’re casting our latest movie, and there’s a major role we’d like you to play.”

My world went immediately into tunnel vision. Major role … latest blockbuster … your name in lights, Andrew, your NAME IN LIGHTS … I asked for a glass of water.

This was my stepping stone into the glittering world of showbiz; free car parks at IconSiam, complimentary desserts at Nahm, extra plastic shopping bags at 7-Eleven … as euphoria wrapped her arms around me in a soft embrace, I said: “Okay.”

“Perhaps we should explain the story to you first.”

“No need,” I said with a cursory, slightly affected, wave of my hand. “I’ll do it. Just send me the script.”

That night I was the happiest farang this side of Silom. I envisaged my playing the part of a kindly middle-aged westerner, a la Nicholas Cage, coming to terms with himself – and love – in the steamy oriental city of Bangkok.

Or perhaps I’d be a Steven Seagall character, overweight and obnoxious, investigating the savage murder of a Vietnam vet at the hands of a Patpong prostitute, culminating in a daring escape in a long-tailed boat and finishing up older and wiser in a dive off Soi Cowboy. Or perhaps I’d be the sage father of a young man discovering love for the first time, offering poignant pieces of advice.

Wrong on all counts.

“Andrew Biggs will play a zombie who brings a mutated Sars virus into Thailand and infects the entire country,” the script explained clearly on page one. “After turning into a zombie he eats a cat, murders a woman in her bathtub, bites and infects a pregnant woman, vomits all over a man and his girlfriend, then has his head shot off.”

That was the role I played.

And now, deja-vu. Here was Maestro Somtow offering me the part of a despised king who taunts and prods poor Jesus Christ.

“We did have auditions, but everybody seems to be of the same opinion that you would be perfect to play Herod. Can you sing? You don’t have to, you know. You can just shout the lyrics like Rex Harrison did in the songs to My Fair Lady.”

What a circle it is to be asked to perform Herod’s song. I am immediately transformed back to my childhood.

What music did you dance and sing along to as a kid? For me, there were two albums that shaped my youth. Both came from stage musicals. The first was the Music from Hair; the second, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Hair reflected the drug-infused, trippy 1960s and was quite ahead of its time. It addressed racism, the madness of war, mind-altering drugs and even saving the environment. The music is still great to this day. The stage show was hugely controversial with actors stripping off at the end of the second act for the druggy “Be-in”.

I never got to see the show as a kid, but would dance and sing to the songs all by myself in our family living room. My parents, who despite suburban respectability were pretty hip for their time, had those two albums on what we now call vinyl. There was some attempt to hide them in the back of the record collection but I would always find them.

I adored the music from Hair. How quaint to think that as a 7-year old I would sing along to songs such as “Sodomy,” “Hashish” and “Colored Spade” absolutely oblivious to the lyrical meaning.

Jesus Christ Superstar was similarly shocking but for different reasons.

Here was a musical that took the story of Jesus out of the Middle Eastern deserts of 2,000 years ago and into the early psychedelic seventies. Many saw it as blasphemous and some countries banned it. Again, the music was what carried it, and as a kid I would rip apart my mother’s ferns so I could wave one in the air as I sang along to “Hosannah”.

While everybody loves the fragile “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” or “Everything’s Alright”, my very favorite was the boisterous “Herod’s Song”, again, oblivious to its real meaning.

So it is exciting for me to be dressing up as King Herod and taking to the stage to act as a sex-crazed, evil, pouting megalomaniac. One wonders how much acting ability I will have to employ without appearing as wooden as the floorboards on the Thai Cultural Center stage.

And now it’s off to rehearsals. All I need is for Somtow to put on Hair and my life is complete.



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