>sandakan threnody by theatreworks

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 20 jun 2004
>time: 8pm
>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.


SANADAKAN THRENODY began life as a 30-minute orchestral piece by Australian composer Jonathan Mills. Mills wrote the three movements in honour of the Australian and British prisoners-of-war, his own father among them, incarcerated in Sandakan, North Borneo by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945. It was local director, Ong Keng Sen, at Mills' request, who then translated the score into a 110-minute theatrical experience, incorporating live action, dance, text and video, and the score itself. And when it is taken in that regard - as a visual manifestation of an orchestral piece - SANDAKAN THRENODY can be seen to have grand purpose and great beauty.

The feelings of loss and tragedy that the music embodies are given striking physical form in various largely stand-alone vignettes that are heavy on visuality and movement. One example is the way video projections of snapshots of handsome young Australian men in army uniforms and interviews with descendants of the prisoners-of-war are set against the aching quiet of Gojo Masanosuke's kabuki performance. The idea is simple but the mood created is powerful. War brings about a heightened sense of life which can eventually decay into a heightened sense of death or the meaninglessness of life, as we see with one of the survivors of Sandakan who eventually kills himself and this contrast can be found in the juxtaposition of chaos and calm in the music and also on-stage with Kota Yamazaki's quick and fluid butoh-inspired movements and Rizman Putra's brutal convulsions.

>>'The feelings of loss and tragedy that the music embodies are given striking physical form in the video projections set against the aching quiet of Gojo Masanosuke's kabuki performance.'

Mills himself notes in the programme that in SANDAKAN THRENODY the score "changes its role" throughout the production - sometimes it propels the stage action and at other times it supports the dramaturgy; and this is where the production falters: when the live action is left to tell the tale on its own and the music is relegated to the background. This is when the production lapses into navel-gazing poetry, tracts of factual information and snatches of context-less dialogue that add little to the experience of the production. They neither offer new perspectives nor engage on an emotional level (despite the best efforts of actor Matthew Crosby). If anything, the weight of their clutter distracts us from our experience, through the music and movement, of the senselessness of war - especially when the words are presented with a theatricality that can sometimes be cheap (Tim Harvey flashing some leg) or over-the-top (Rizman Putra's bizarre costumes - Whoopi Goldberg in a purple leotard? A white rabbit with a floppy, phallic horn and testicular skin?).

One interesting point raised with regard to words, though, in SANDAKAN THRENODY is how they cannot be trusted during times of war. They become meaningless because everything can be twisted around to promote a certain agenda such as the manipulation of the mood of a nation. Ong himself edits and censors the words of the son of a Japanese war criminal. In this vignette, the interviewer's questions come across loud and clear but when the man replies, sometimes there is no sound and you only see his lips moving to stop just in time for the next audible question. Sometimes there is translation and sometimes there is not. It is a disturbing scene that asks powerful questions about the reliability of words, especially answers.

Another way Ong tries to make this point, however, could have been much more effective. In a later scene, he presents a mock-documentary which teaches Australians why they should hate the Japanese. This is apparently in response to 'This Is Japan', an Australian war-time documentary about how the Japanese are trained to hate from a young age. Ong says in the programme to SANDAKAN THRENODY that in making the documentary, the Australians were themselves insidiously practising hate propaganda. However, this point is not clearly expressed on-stage: replacing 'This Is Japan' with a clearly made-up documentary that is so blatant and explicit in its intention ("We must hate the Japanese") drains the message of all its power.

In terms of capturing mood and atmosphere, the production is strikingly effective. The bare set with a large metal plate hanging from the ceiling captured the coldness of war and its oppressive nature and Ong's direction is clean and sharp and creates at times some very beautiful, bittersweet and poignant images. It is the script, however, that ultimately let the production down, sadly, causing the whole to be less than the sum of its parts.