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


  1. Hey Samsara, this is such a beautiful review! Just wanted to do a fact check though that Suharto did not preside over a Communist rule,but was instead very "anti communist".

  2. Thanks for the fact check! Also, thank you for your beautiful words about my review. You can subscribe to my newsletter in 2024 if you want to read more about what shows are on and what I think about them :)


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