Friday 15 December 2023

MAY 1998: Theatre Review

WHAT: May 1998
WHEN: 13 - 16 December 2023
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus
DIRECTED BY: Acacia Nettleton
DESIGN BY: Nathan Dinh

Victoria Wintana - photo supplied

Last week I reviewed Surat Suratnya which was a memory piece about the Indonesian purges in the 1960s which brought President Suharto into power. This week we move forward in time to May 1998 when students rioted and the rule of President Suharto came to an end. Playing this week at The Motley Bauhaus, May 1998 is a powerful interrogation on the issues surrounding multiculturalism and what defines our national pedigree. Whilst not specifically about Australia, an Australian audience will find that the questions arising in May 1998 are questions we are in the process of asking ourselves.

In May 1998 Victoria Winata (writer and performer) has created a bilingual, surrealist monologue. It shifts between the memories of the past and dreams of the future, it shifts between hope and despair, and it shifts between Indonesian and English language. Designer Nathan Dinh has captured that perfectly in a set grounded by a table and chairs, but with the floor boards falling away and the edges of the stage strewn with memorabilia including protest placards, photo books, children's shoes, etc. Normally I would rail against a table placed centre stage because, as I always say, why would you give the most powerful position on stage to a piece of furniture? In this instance though, it works because of the clever blocking of Acacia Nettleton (director).

May 1998 is a raw and intensely personal remembrance of a terrifying experience to live through and the soul wrenching struggle to be accepted. I'm not sure I understand why the concept of a homeland is so important to us, and even as I write this I see the irony because I identify strenuously as an Australian even though I am first generation. For the Chinese Indonesian community, the struggle to be accepted as something other than a cultural minority in Indonesia has been ongoing even though they migrated over a hundred years ago. During the Suharto regime the policy was assimilation, which meant unique cultural practices were discouraged - we know quite a bit about assimilation policies in Australia too, don't we?

Whilst the May 1998 riots were supposedly an unrest led by students, the truth is that the seeds were sown in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and it is believed the military actually engineered the riots to unseat Suharto. Inflation similar to the conditions in Germany which led to WWII created a social and economic disaster which could only have one outcome. In the riots the Chinese Indonesians became the target of pent up frustration and despair. We always look for an 'other' in these situations and it was this community which bore the brunt. Typically, it didn't even matter what your background was, if you looked Chinese you became a target.

In May 1998 Winata's character 'I' remembers the terror and confusion of the riots. The show begins with her getting a phone call saying her grandmother is dead, but she can't go to her funeral. She can never go back because she promised she never would. We learn that 'I' has migrated to Australia after the riots, after the most horrible thing that can happen has happened. We learn about the overwhelming stench of burning in the air, the crowds of people on the streets. 'I' goes out in the streets to look for her brother. Winata never says specifically what happened but suffice to say that there were a lot of rapes during those riots.

Telling the story in Indonesian and English, 'I' declares her right to assert Indonesia as her homeland. She will never consider herself Australian and will never become a citizen because she is Indonesian. Her plea and demand is that both Indonesia and China accept that claim so that she can return home. I admit, I don't know enough about the Chinese part of this story to understand what influence China plays in this narrative.

Winata is a poet as well as stepping into playwrighting, and the beauty and intensity of this writing is breath-taking. Add to that her incredible skill as an actor, and in May 1998 we have an enduringly powerful piece of story-telling. I am going to say it is perhaps around 10 min too long, but that might only be because I don't understand Indonesian and there are a couple of long passages in that language which allowed me to temporarily disconnect. Having said that, the beauty of the language, and the deep authenticity of Winata's performance kept me entranced even when I couldn't specifically understand what was being said.

Sarah Gooda's sound design was a light touch, but very effective, and the rhythm developed for Winata to move into more lyrical passages was delightful. Winata's connection to poetry comes through almost as strongly as her connection to Indonesia in this painful yet stunning piece of theatre.

I know this is a heavy topic for this festive time of the year, but I strongly recommend you go and see May1998 because I don't know if it will be restaged. I hope it will. If you saw Surat Suratnya you absolutely have to come and see May 1998 to see the next chapter in the story.

4.5 Stars

Thursday 7 December 2023


WHEN: 7 - 9 December 2023
WHERE: The Motley Bauhaus
WRITTEN & PERFORMED BY: Ruby Rawlings and Clare Taylor

Clare Taylor and Ruby Rawlings

What do Vanessa Amarossi and Death have in common? Absolutely everybody! Wocka, wocka wocka!

Well, actually, they also have the creative team of Clare Taylor and Ruby Rawlings in common. These two feisty women take Death head on with all the energy of a millennial pop star in FUNeral, playing this week for three shows only at The Motley Bauhaus.

Terry Pratchett's character Death has joined the digital age and is using their PowerPoint skills to interlope on a pair of women determined to cheat him of his prizes. Death always turns up early - they are a dedicated soul - and at FUNeral they wait with all of us for the show to begin. Just as they are about to give up Rawlings and Taylor burst onto the stage with high energy lip synching and eventually become aware that another presence is sharing their stage. There is a brief moment of mistaken identities, but then it is a head on battle despite humanities dismal record of nil-all. 

Taylor and Rawlings are determined to help us all learn how to live longer despite an insinuation by that dark demon that there is not much time left for them. Poo-pooing the well-researched Yale guide to a long healthy life, this enterprising pair have come up with their own step by step plan to stay alive which is a whole lot more fun even if it hasn't been published in a peer reviewed journal...yet.

FUNeral is a fun journey traversing a terrain which flits between surreal imaginings, a rather dubious TEDX session, and heart felt fears and truths. FUNeral was originally conceived during the height of the pandemic and Rawlings and Taylor reveal all the things which are most precious to them and would miss should Death visit their worlds. It ends with us all having a moment we can share the most precious things in our own lives. It is always magical to take those moments to share and honour the things we love and FUNeral lets us do that amongst a whole lot of laughter and fantasy.

Taylor and Rawlings are VCA Company 2020 and whilst we hear a lot about how hard it was for that graduating year because of lockdowns, one thing we don't talk about a lot, is just how good that cohort is working with technology - a skill they had to master in that environment. What makes FUNeral work is how easily these two actors interact with the most basic PowerPoint presentation ever made. Death is real, and in the room with us - an invisible puppet who pushes and pulls and plays with just as much life as the women. And they are funny!

I have to admit that I found it hard to really care about the women's fears of what they might lose if someone dies - it seems like a lot of wasted energy to me - but I really loved the message of cherishing what is most precious to us all. FUNeral is a sweet, high energy and hilarious investigation of how to think about living rather than dying.

4 Stars


WHAT: Surat Suratnya
WHEN: 6 - 17 December 2023
WRITTEN BY: Ratna Ayu Budiarti and Wawan Sofwan
DIRECTED BY: Wawan Sofwan
COMPOSITIONS BY: Kurnia Eka Fajar and Ria Soemardjo
PERFORMED BY: Kurnia Eka Fajar, Ellen Marning, and Ria Soemardjo

Ellen Marning and Kurnia Eka Fajar - photo by Darren Gill

Surat Suratnya literally means "her letters" in Indonesian and knowing that tells you everything about the event happening at La Mama HQ right now. Comprised of a pre-performance sound installation called 'Between The Letters' and a theatrical monologue called 'Our Last Dinner was Sayur Lodeh' the creative team immerses us in the sounds, smells and stories of Indonesia in the mid 1960's. Inspired by letters written by Ria Soemardjo's mother during the communist purges in Indonesia across 1965-1966, Sandra Fiona Long (translator/dramaturg/producer) has gathered her Australian and Indonesian cohorts and created this collaboration between herself, Soemardjo, and Stage of Wawan Sofwan - to help raise awareness of a difficult time which has been kept hidden and unspoken for so very long. 

Soemardjo's mother, Ibu Helen, is an Australian who married an Indonesian trade unionist. They lived on the island of Java and raised their children there. Unfortunately, the 1960's was a difficult time all over the world as the Cold War initiated an international 'reds under the beds' mania. In Indonesia, a union of islands only very newly minted in its independent sovereignty after 150+ years of colonisation by the Dutch, it was a chance to change power structures harnessing a violence seeded in the rebellions two decades earlier.

In those days anybody who had even the slightest whiff of socialist tendencies was declared a communist - a tendency very well documented in Australian history as well. In Indonesia the outcomes were deadly in the most violent of ways as somewhere between 500 000 and 1 million people were estimated to have been killed. As the wife of a prominent trade unionists living in that social carnage, Ibu Helen's letters home to Australia immortalise the growing turmoil and terror and confusion of those times.

The performances begin with the sound installation in La Mama's rehearsal space created by Soemardjo which establishes our link between Australia today, and Indonesian traditions and music. A man sits in the centre of the room, surrounded by a sheer cloth as if there but not there. He gently plays the Gong Ageng creating swirls and swoons of sound as people gather around. Intimate listening devices are available and you are encouraged to hold them close to your ear, as if to hear secrets from the past, whilst being immersed in the sound waves pulsing around the room at large. At some point in time the playful calls and replies of two Kemanaks draw us back out, play with us, and then invite us into the theatre space.

In there we meet Ibu Helen (Ellen Marning) who is making Sayur Lodeh for the last time as her family readies to evacuate Indonesia for the safer climes of Australia. For her it is going home. For her husband and family it is a fearful new adventure. The scales have tipped now, though. Staying is scarier than leaving.

Wawan Sofwan and Ratna Ayu Budiarti have woven together a monologue out of the aerogrammes Ibu Helen sent back home. Do you remember aerogrammes? Those light weight papers which folded into an envelope which allowed you to correspond internationally at low cost? They were the connections between worlds and designer Yudith Christianto has made them the veil between today and yesterday, copying original letters onto long lengths framing Marning's performance. Some clever silhouette work (Cole McKenna) also links the installation with the monologue at one point in the show. It may be a bit lost on younger audiences just how impactful the discovery that those letters were being intercepted and censored actually was back then, in a world with no internet, email, or social media.

This leads me to my main criticism of Surat Suratnya. Everything is beautiful, gentle, melancholy, and sad, but I feel the terror of those times is missing in this show. I have a connection to Indonesia as my grandfather was in the Dutch army around WWII. During the post war independence struggles my family saw first-hand how violent and terrifying unrest can be in that part of the world. My family finally left the day after their next-door neighbours had their heads decapitated. That kind of terror is visceral and the violence during the purges was far worse than the fight for independence. This is what I missed from the performance.

It was probably opening night nerves as much as anything, but I felt Marning was too much in her head. If she can find a way to take all of those overwhelming emotions flooding her eyes and feed them into her body through the chopping of the vegetables, and perhaps working with breath (in the monologue Ibu Helen talks about being asthmatic but not being able to get medication), the vibrations of that will create a tension belied by the soulful timbre of Kurnia Eka Fajar's Gamelan instrumentation, and the Indonesian philosophies underlying food.

Context is everything sometimes and I feel kind of sorry for those in the audience who will probably miss some of the humour - as did I perhaps... I had a good old cackle when Ibu Helen tells us her husband was held in high regard despite his Dutch education.

Sometimes theatre is about entertainment. Sometimes theatre is about education. Sometimes theatre is about orientation. Sometimes theatre is about beautification. Sometimes theatre is about revelation. Surat Suratnya is all of these things in a range of measures.

3.5 Stars

Saturday 2 December 2023


WHAT: The Last Emperox
WRITTEN BY: John Scalzi

2020 was a place for some arts to die, but it was also a place where other arts got to fly. Books were one of the winners of that difficult time. According to The Authors Guild fiction books sales increased by 18%. One book published in the midst of lockdowns and a world turned inside out was the final instalment of the Interdependency trilogy, called The Last Emperox, written by John Scalzi. I must admit, I started reading this when it was released. I feel it is quite telling that I have only just finished this book, so many years later. 

The Interdependency trilogy actually began as a two-book space opera. As it was written it became apparent a third instalment was necessary and, whilst I haven't read the first two, I feel like the whole story actually lies in the second half of this third book.

The trouble with writing what have become known as space operas is that the authors think they can reveal things slowly and in a convoluted manner. This is why I have only just finished this book. In my opinion absolutely nothing happens until the second half. There is no inciting incident of any significance to draw the reader in. On the other hand, in these pages the first 2 books are pretty much explained - or the cliff notes at least - so I don't feel any need to read them and the world is not intriguing enough for me to want to go back and explore the history.

The concept has good potential. The Interdependency is a diaspora of humanity which has managed to fling themselves deep into the universe through wormhole style 'flows'. They now have the technology to build habitats so it doesn't matter that the planets are incompatible for human life. These communities also don't need to be near each other because they are connected by these flow streams.  

The problem is, in the first two books they have discovered these streams are collapsing and the last Emperox, Grayland II, has to figure out how to get as many people through what will be the last remaining stream to the only planet which can sustain human life. An added complication is that one of her enemies has rebelled and taken control of the other end of that stream and any spaceship not permitted through will be destroyed upon arrival. 

The conceit is a lot of fun, and once The Last Emperox stops messing around with all the cloak and dagger stuff, the story really takes off. The structure of the book is in 3 'books' which is part of why I don't think you need to bother with the first two. The characters are mostly fascinating although I think making the key players female is a bit disingenuous and leaves them feeling a bit two dimensional. I don't care what people may say, a woman is not just a man with mammary glands.  

Having said that, the character of Kiva Lagos is great fun. Grayland seems a bit lacking in personality. Nadashe Nohamapetan is a wonderful villian. Perhaps it is worth reading book two, The Consuming Fire, because that is where the rivalry between Lagos and Nohamapetan seems to have been fully realised.

The technology in The Last Emperox is a mix of good ideas and WTF. Scalzi has long had a fascination with life extension and transference of personality to other places as the body dies, kind of like Altered Carbon. The Interdependency trilogy plays with this and there is a big reveal in The Last Emperox which mirrors some of what has been developed in the Foundation TV series. On the disappointing side is the little things, like how they still use tablets and watch shows with the tablets resting on their knees. I would have thought that by that point in our technological development we might have come up with something a bit less cumbersome.

I know this sounds like I didn't enjoy the book. I really did - or at least the second half. The problem is that in 2020 I didn't have the patience to wade through all the soap opera before finally getting to the action. In the end, what is good about science fiction is the technology, the ideas in the world building, and the action. Just like any film script, a book needs to start at a point of action. The past and the relationships get revealed through that moment of impact and the ramifications which come from that.

Despite my reservations I do think science fiction addicts will enjoy this world. This trilogy is possibly a winning Xmas present idea, especially if you have a teen who is a really scifi addict.

3.5 Stars

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHAT: KOAL WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory) WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024 CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford DIRECTED BY: Tre...