>the coffin is too big for the hole by teater mandiri and the theatre practice

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 16 sep 2001
>time: 3pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


When director Putu Wijaya from Indonesian company Teater Mandiri first approached playwright Kuo Pao Kun about reworking his sixteen-year old classic THE COFFIN IS TOO BIG FOR THE HOLE for 2000's Tokyo Asian Art Festival, to be on the safe side, he warned Kuo that he would "destroy" the text. Teater Mandiri had always worked on scripts written by Wijaya himself and a departure into another playwright's work, Wijaya said in the talk-back session after today's performance, was rare because he was afraid of "misinterpretation", especially when taking into consideration Teater Madiri's tenet of re-imagining texts as tontonan or "spectacle", such that it does not consist necessarily of dialogues, stories with plots, characters, conflicts or moral messages but is retold entirely in visual images and pictures.

Wijaya said that his approach was simply to read Kuo's play, locate the heart of it, or rather, locate Wijaya's (and the cast's) own heart or connection to the story, and then present that, rather than the play itself per se (although the story of a man who cannot bury his grandfather because the coffin is too big for the hole and the authorities are unwilling to budge does still exist in a vague form), on stage as a visual feast of colour, flavour and especially terror - "the aim of Teater Mandiri is mental terror … it aims to shake and shock the inner life of the audience so that they are forced to reconsider all that has been considered well-established … to invigorate [theatre] to go deeper."

And indeed, on those criteria, Teater Mandiri never faltered.

>>'Some of the images were so horrific and disturbing, I wanted to close my eyes but, ah, to do so would have been to miss the beauty of the madness'

From the beginning, the performance twisted and turned in dazzling bursts of visual and aural assault which left you alternatively mouth-agape as giant shadow puppets and dancing lights twisted on twisting cloth that had been stretched across the stage to create an entire sea of movement, and then squirming in your seat as morbid images of death and chaos were thrust at you in the form of giant skulls being flashed onto the canvas, rows of night-dressed mourners walking in a ghostly procession beneath plastic umbrellas and misshapen performers contorting to their own rhythms. Some of the images were so horrific and disturbing, I wanted to close my eyes but, ah, to do so would have been to miss the beauty of the madness.

And that is what it was for me. Madness. A flurry of wild images some of which I found to be simply that - images. Certainly always powerful and stunning - boredom never raised its ugly head in this performance - but not always relevant to the themes of the text as I had identified them in my mind.

That, however, is not the point, as Teater Mandiri would no doubt have argued. Their stated objective is to paint a dreamscape - with special kudos here to musical director Djauhar Zaharsjah Roesli, for making music that could literally make your skin tingle and crawl! - that presents the themes on a spiritual and emotional level, a dreamscape that is wholly open to individual interpretation if taken on an intellectual level.

Why did one of the characters dancing have what looked like a very large afro that had been dyed by Rainbow Brite? The director wouldn't say. More importantly, did it evoke an emotional response of some form in me? Yes. And there is a value in that even if I cannot verbalise that reaction. In my quiet, I felt so much.

This is not to say that Teater Mandiri's performance fell into that cop-out of experimental theatre whereby anything goes and nothing has to mean anything so let's make sure it doesn't. This was no sound and fury signifying nothing. Each image was clearly carefully thought out and crafted to elicit reactions and there were many strong images that clearly related to the established themes of an inflexible and heartless bureaucracy and a clash of cultural and traditional worlds that have been previously read into Kuo's text.

Big Dragon devours Little Man, Woman raped by Man, Man with Giant Phallus takes Control et al could be interpreted as the visual representations of the oppressive power of the bureaucracy and Establishment. Wijaya talked about the desire to translate the play to an Indonesian context because the problems addressed in the text can be identified with beyond Singapore's shores and perhaps their presentation in such multiple forms was a symbol of their universality. The constant need for translation as different characters speak different languages (Mandarin, English and Bahasa Indonesia) and the use of ritualistic images of death from different cultural source-pools (the Muslim tradition of binding a dead body, the arguably Western association of death with guns etc) are also nice touches to a play by one of the pioneers of cross-stream theatre in Singapore.

It is funny, in a way, that Wijaya spoke of being scared of misinterpreting a text and that he then goes on to direct a production such that it can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, such that every interpretation is a misinterpretation.

Or perhaps the very opposite is being proclaimed - every interpretation is a valid and correct one? Certainly very poignant in a play that attacks hegemony, hierarchy and convention ("Think out of the box", an actor says at one point; a little joke there, one of many in the play).

I don't know. But it is okay not to. And even part of the excitement.