MIAF: I La Galigo ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 23, 2006

MIAF: I La Galigo

Festival Diary #5

As we enter the third week of the Melbourne Festival, TN finds herself a little alarmed by how easily she fades these days. I had to pass on Lucy Guerin's Structure and Sadness and Kota Yamazaki's dance company Fluid hug-hug's Rise:Rose out of sheer exhaustion. Dammit. Mind you, I have never been much good at wholesale cultural consumption: there's always the danger of the experience becoming undifferentiated artistic sludge, like mixing too many colours on a palette. So, with the idea of stringing individual jewels along the MIAF narrative, I will stop regretting what I haven't seen, and get on with what I have...

I La Galigo, from the Sureq Galigo, adapted by Rhoda Grauer, directed by Robert Wilson. Music by Rahaya Supanggah, co-set designer Christophe Martin, lighting by AJ Weissbard, dance master Andi Ummu Tunru. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

It's impossible to underestimate the influence of Asia on modern Western theatre. Ever since Antonin Artaud reviewed a Balinese theatre troupe at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, its theatre has been a major stimulus for the avant garde. Artaud was inspired by the Balinese dancers, who for him articulated the possibility of a theatrical language free of the chains of literature, and his rewritten review later became one of the key essays in his hugely influential book, Theatre and Its Double. A little later, in 1935, Bertolt Brecht saw the Peking Opera in Moscow, and his experience of "strangeness" profoundly underlaid his Epic Theatre and its theory of verfremdungseffekt, most often translated as the "alienation effect".

In 1978, Edward Said published his ground breaking (and much misrepresented) work about the political implications of Western portrayals of the East, Orientalism. By the time Peter Brook undertook his extraordinary nine-hour adaptation of the Indian epic poem, The Mahabharata, in 1985, the issue of cultural appropriation had entered the intellectual mix. Intercultural artists like Brook (and Ariane Mnouchkine, for her epic production of Les Atrides) were accused of a kind of neo-colonial banditry, "raiders across a frontier", according to one critic, who brought back "strange clothes as their loot".

In assuming that cultural influence only runs one way, this rather ignores Said's argument about the mutuality of cultural influence in colonised societies. Even more problematically, it can encourage a museum-mindset around minority cultures, preserving them in a kind of motionless prehistory that is hermetically sealed from the present. Some of the complexities around this question can be seen from the arguments sparked by Wesley Enoch's appropriation of Medea in his production of Black Medea: as Enoch himself said, "I've been amazed how many 'purists' have come out of the closet saying that this kind of appropriation is 'not allowed'."

Given this history, it's easy to see why Robert Wilson - one of the major innovative directors of our time - was so attracted by the Sureq Galigo, an epic poem from the Bugis people in South Sulwesi in Indonesia, and also why he has been so careful in his approach, consulting extensively with the culture to whom it belongs. The original epic runs to something like 6000 pages and exists in innumerable versions, making it one of the longest literary works in the world. In realising this text on stage, Wilson has pulled off a considerable aesthetic coup: he has created a work of breathtakingly sensual splendour that neither compromises his practice nor traduces the Asian traditions on which he is drawing.

Anyone who saw the National Theatre of Cambodia's production of the traditional Cambodian epic Weyreap's Battle at MIAF last year will be familiar with the theatrical traditions at work here: the narrative is chanted or sung, while dancers, masked and unmasked, enact the story with stylised, even heiratic movement. It's theatre that combines elements of the sacred and profane, beginning with a blessing and including elements of vulgar comedy.

Librettist Rhoda Grauer has adapted what are generally understood to be the most significant characters and events of this creation myth. The Middle World - the realm in which we live - is created and populated when the gods of the Upper and Under Worlds, in an irresistably Blakean observation, realise that they are not gods if there is no one to worship them. Patotoqe, boss god of the Upper World, sends down his son Batara Guru, and Guru ri Selleq, god of the Under World, sends up his daughter We Nyiliq. The two marry and, in a festival of fertility, everyone gives birth except the Queen. That's because her twin son and daughter have decided they like the womb and don't want to be born.

Bissu priests are brought in to help the Queen, and after a blood sacrifice in which the people battle, she gives birth to Golden Twins. Sawerigading, the warrior king, is born like Athene in full armour, while We Tenriebeng, his sister, destined to the priesthood, is born in Bissu regalia. After this difficult birth, an oracle tells the parents that their children must never meet, as they are destined to fall in love, and incest would destroy the kingdom. The princess is hidden in the palace, while Sawerigading is sent out to explore the world with his clownish cousins.

Of course, the twins meet and fall in love: but despite Sawerigading's bloody tantrums, which involve killing most of the population, they are not allowed to marry. Trying to forget We Tenriebeng, he marries We Cudaiq, a proud and stubborn princess in Cina, and begets I La Galigo. Eventually Sawerigading returns to his home kingdom and meets his sister again, at which point the gods announce the purging of the Middle World. The gods return to their worlds, Sawerigading's son and We Tenriebeng's daughter are sent down to the Middle World to be its new rulers, and the gates between the realms are closed forever, leaving the young royal couple alone on the godless earth.

When we enter the theatre, we see the blank stage, obscured with a scrim that is decorated with the original script of the epic. The show begins with the entrance of the orchestra, who settle themselves stage right, and a figure dressed gorgeously in yellow silk, Puang Matoa Saidi, who sits cross legged on a small hanamichi at the front. Puang Matoa Saidi is the main chanter and also a Bissu priest: he sits motionless through the entire show, slowly turning the pages of a book that lies in front of him on a wooden rest. Then the scrim rises and we witness the emptying of the Middle World: a procession of people carrying a miscellany of objects - pots, musical instruments, spears, baskets - cross the stage from right to left, silhouetted against the blank screen that is the major feature of the stage, and which now is a deep blue brightening to sunrise. The slow, heiratic movement introduces the pace of this production, which induces a deep, contemplative attention.

The show itself lasts for three hours, but it seems somehow appropriate that I lost all sense of time while I was watching it. Wilson orchestrates the rhythm beautifully: long ritualised scenes, such as the first meeting of the royal couple, when We Nyiliq Timoq rises in royal splendour from the sea, are contrasted with the burping-and-scratching vulgarity of Sawerigading's disreputable cousins or the comically beautiful entrance of the animals - masked monkeys and frogs, deer with antler and an unlikely-looking giraffe, each with its own musical signature. Wilson's cast of more than 50 Indonesian performers enacts the stylised dances and mimes with a precise and compelling expressiveness. This is the kind of performance that flowers from a core of stillness and contemplation, making each gesture and each change of rhythm charged and meaningful.

The costumes are, like the set design, elegant contemporary adaptations of traditional Asian designs. Perhaps what is most striking in the production is the colour: it is at once lush and spare, employing a palette of clear, luminous colours, like those used in dyeing silk. It didn't surprise me afterwards when I read that the costume designer Joachim Herzog adhered strictly to traditional Indonesian notions of colour use and heraldic symbology in his designs (yellow for royal, for example), as the colours in both the lighting and costumes have a deep coherency, which works even for those who do not understand the codes.

Likewise, Rahayu Sapanggah's original music, which draws on traditions from all over Indonesia and beyond, sounds at once deeply ancient and modern, and features some thrilling drumming as well as songs of heart-stopping poignancy. One of the instruments sounds exactly like a cello, but in fact no Western instruments were used.

Wilson escapes the trap of making a patronisingly anthropological treatment of a fascinating but obscure text: this is utterly contemporary theatre that dynamically reworks this ancient epic, bringing it freshly alive. All the various elements are seamlessly woven together to create a work of profound elegance that, like the myth it enacts, is at once lucid and mysterious. It epitomises the kind of intercultural exchange that Said himself would have welcomed; if all meetings of East and West were this fruitful, the world would be a different place.


Lucas Krech said...

Wow! That sounds like a beautiful show.

Born Dancin' said...

Hi Alison,
You needn't kick yourself for missing Rise:Rose (or Monumental); both very strong pieces but not ones I suspect will lodge themselves in the cultural memory of Melbourne. Rise:Rose, especially, which I found myself forgetting even as I was watching it. Wonderfully talented dancers, though.

Structure and Sadness is most certainly worth a look, however.

Alison Croggon said...

Hey Lucas, it was.

Born Dancin', thanks for the consolation. I'm not going to make it to Lucy Guerin's piece, for which I do kick myself: I've heard a lot of good noise about it. And I missed Love Me last year because I was away. One day.