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Production

Romusha

Company

Agni Kootthu

Reviewer

Nadia Bte Ibrahim

Date

30/01/2005

Time

8.00pm

Place

Guinness Theatre, The Substation

Rating

***1/2

War Stories

It is the year 1941, the beginning of World War Two. The Japanese, vowing to liberate the East of colonial rule, establish control over many territories in South-East Asia. Not only do they fail to keep their promise, but these alleged freedom fighters are responsible for the deaths of over 80,000 British, Australian, American and Dutch POWs and Asian slave labourers (romusha) who are forced to work on the Siam-Burma Railway.

Romusha transported its audience to this time and place, where a talented, multi-racial cast - reflective of the people of different races who were tortured, raped and humiliated during the Japanese Occupation - attempted to reveal the extent of physical abuse that was inflicted on the POWs and labourers.

The stage was hung with Japanese flags, forming a shrine and evoking fear and apprehension, making one recall the real-life accounts of Japanese brutality during WWII. Credit to Andre Danker and Paw Sorensen for sound and lighting design that succeeded in heightening this sense of fear and misery: the slow, haunting music that was played after the ending of innocent lives and the dim lighting added to the depressing and lonely atmosphere.

The cast of Romusha was able to thoroughly engage its audience throughout the entire production. It is challenging for a play like this to move the audience due to the obvious difficulty of tackling such strong issues and creating the perfect atmosphere. However most scenes in Romusha took less than a minute to captivate the audience. For instance, in a scene where three civilians were beheaded by the Japanese for attempting to escape, I could see the audience staring in horror as the beheading took place. Playing the part of the fearful victim, Sudeep Singh portrayed deep-rooted terror as his character ran for his life and, when caught, begged for mercy only to be laughed at by the Japanese soldier.

If not for the ability of the cast to engage the audience, Romusha could have been in danger of presenting a mere documentary on the events of the Japanese Occupation. But this was not the case: instead of viewing the Occupation from a "historically objective" perspective, Romusha delved deep into the minds and hearts of its victims. The actors presented their characters as mere civilians who yearned to return to their loved ones and this struck a chord with the audience as they realised that the victims of the Japanese Occupation were just ordinary people. These actors also managed to show the transition of emotions felt by the victims - from reluctance to obey orders to fear of their Asian masters to mere resignation to their circumstances.

Though most of the scenes were very intense, one scene, showing the plight of the rape victims, was particularly horrifying. Sandhu and Ng succeeded in showing us the helplessness and desperation of the "comfort women" during the Japanese Occupation. Lying on the floor, writhing in pain, they pleaded with the Japanese soldiers to use protection during sexual intercourse, and their screams of agony were painful to listen to. Suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, these women were provided little or no treatment and were even raped by the doctors who were supposed to cure them. These rape victims were also brutally killed by the Japanese when they threatened to report the soldiers' misconduct.

Though it may be true that the play dealt fearlessly with strong issues and contained graphic depictions of violence which added to the overall sense of realism, the Japanese soldiers seemed little more than cardboard cut-outs and less real than the rest of the play. If there had been more exploration into their psyches, the production could have been even more well-rounded.

Nevertheless, the brilliant exploration of the suffering of the victims of World War Two and the laudable ability of the cast to draw the audience's attention ensured that Romusha gave everyone a piece of history to reflect on.


"Instead of viewing the Japanese Occupation from a 'historically objective' perspective, Romusha delved deep into the minds and hearts of its victims"

Previous Productions by Agni Kootthu
Mines

Buang Suay

More Reviews by Nadia Bte Ibrahim

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.