Thursday 7 December 2023


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

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