Lakhon Nai (court dance drama) is a dance drama with chorus singing and accompanied by a Pi Phat ensemble. It is a court entertainment which features an all-female cast (with the male roles performed en travestie) and has a long history dating back to the Ayutthaya era. Lakhon Nai only depicts four stories --the Ramakian, Unnarut, Dalang and Inao.
The form and the custom of Lakhon Nai performance begin with the Pi Phat ensemble playing a suite of Hom Rong (overture) music, excluding Phleng Wa tune which is played when the dance drama is about to begin. After the Phleng Wa comes the Boek Rong (prelude), which can be either of the two types: a non-narrative dance and a narrative one. Of the former type, only three are in existence today: Boek Rong Praleng, Boek Rong Ram Dok Mai Ngoen Thong (performed by the dancers of hero role), and Boek Rong Ram Chui Chai Dok Mai Ngoen Thong (performed by the dancers of the heroine role). Of the latter type, only one dance is in existence: Boek Rong Wasanta-niyai (Ramasun and Mekhala). After the Boek Rong, the main story begins and the performance duration usually takes no less than four hours to finish. Today, two hours’ duration is preferred and therefore Boek Rong is excluded from the show.
Lakhon Nai focuses on the beauty of the choreography that corresponds to the singing and the music, which are in slow tempo; while the progression of the story is of secondary concern. The performance adheres to tradition and custom in its form, for example, a journey by a character must be portrayed in this sequence: the bathing (Bot Long Song), the inspection of the troops (Bot Chom Thap), the comment on the horses and carts (Bot Chom Ma Chom Rot), the survey of the forest (Bot Chom Dong). The traditional formulaic sequence results in the decline in popularity as the spectators today find the performance too slow-paced.
The Pi Phat ensemble provides the music accompaniment for Lakhon Nai which normally uses the Pi Phat Khrueang Ha with padded mallets for softer tone. The evidence from the existing Lakhon Nai librettos/scripts reveals that originally only a limited number of the song tunes and the Naphat tunes are used in Lakhon Nai, and that it primarily uses Phleng Rai Nai to progress the story. After Lakhon Duekdambam was created, many more tunes were used for singing and this has become the norm today.
Every Lakhon Nai performer wears acostume designed for a character of royal status or high social status and a headdress befitting the status and social rank. The stories and rites depicted in the Lakhon Nai reveal the way of life of the royal court in the past and serve as a repository of rites, rituals, traditions and customs -- for example, the royal court’s rites and customs regarding the royal ceremonies, festivities, entertainments, fashion, food, troop formations in war, processional formations, diplomatic dialogue etc. These are historical records - a wealth of information for several fields of study.
Lakhon Nai is recognized as the valuable legacy of Thai performing arts which should urgently be safeguarded and perpetuated for future generations as an intellectual cultural heritage. The performances of all episodes of Lakhon Nai should be organized and promoted before they are lost forever.