Suzuki Company of Toga & Purnati Indonesia
Victoria Theatre/May 17
Can you tell a story without language? Dionysus plays with this idea, among many others, while presenting a literal Babel's tower of languages.
Cadmus (a mournfully stately Jamaluddin Latif) speaks in Javanese. King Pentheus (Tian Chong), his grandson, responds in colloquial Mandarin, while Agave (Naito Chieko), Pentheus' mother, intones in singsong Japanese.
All the while, English surtitles help to translate this linguistic tangle. Or not, as one realises mere minutes into the play as dialogue hurtles by while the surtitles remain stubbornly still.
Director Tadashi Suzuki presents Greek playwright Euripides' 2,000-year-old work as a series of dynamic tableaus. The minimal mise en scene, with only six chairs as props, focuses the attention on the cast which also includes two Greek choruses, one comprising men, the other women.
The actors move deliberately slowly, often reciting lines at the audience in a stylised manner reminiscent of kabuki staging which breaks the Western theatre tradition of naturalism. While the actors' sliding and shuffling steps are taken from the vocabulary of Noh and kabuki movement, some of the poses and motions recall the Indonesian martial art of pencak silat.
This clash of languages, text and staging sounds like a cacophonous riot. Yet under Suzuki's disciplined hand, all these disparate elements are moulded into an almost severe, stately whole.
The tightly controlled pacing and often sonorous delivery of the lines turns each scene into the theatrical equivalent of a contemplative Zen garden, inviting the viewer to consider the implications of various aspects of the story and staging. The verbal fencing matches between Pentheus and Cadmus raise spectre of the clash between political authority and religious belief. The silence of the women and their absence from the first half of the play convey a powerful message about this patriarchal world where women are centred in discourse but marginalised in life.
This staging can feel emotionally remote, too intellectual for some. Yet, its self-conscious theatricality also marks an acute awareness of the artificiality of this art. While acknowledging theatre's shortcomings - it cannot transcend linguistic barriers - this production also celebrates its magic - that transcendental creative leap that allows diverse actors on a bare platform to embody, for a short while, the audience's best and worst selves.