Totem and Taboo
I was hella confused for the first fifteen minutes of this show. It was as if I'd stumbled into some children's pantomime; one of those celebrate-our-Southeast-Asian-heritage shebangs full of live gamelan music, talking animals and magic.
Then came all the adult bits: patricide, incest and dog-fucking. "It'll be different," director Jeffrey Tan told me. He definitely kept that promise.
The Enchantment of Sangkuriang was billed as a retelling of a Sundanese legend by a Singaporean cast - an odd enough premise to begin with, but not without precedent. After all, W!ld Rice regularly does smart-aleck Singaporeanised updates of European fairy tales, while The Theatre Practice and Cake Theatre have monkeyed with Chinese folktales and Malay bangsawan plots respectively. Why not extend the genre to include a tale or two from Indonesia, our closest southern neighbour?
Yet Sangkuriang comes off as profoundly different from these other productions, because - and this is a big surprise - it contains no irony. For once, we're getting a fairy tale that's told straight-faced, with a culturally appropriate orchestra and cast members actually attired in period dress. The legend is not subverted from the outside; rather, its original eccentricity is allowed to shine through.
I'll describe the show for a moment. We open with the orchestra members of Gamelan Asmaradana, attired in traditional Indonesian regalia and playing their spell-binding music. The actors enter and slowly perform a dumb-show of animals drinking from a lake (it's later clear that they're playing the enchanted wild pigs who're the progenitors of the characters in the story). Then we meet our protagonists: the young hunter Sangkuriang and his lover Dewi, who refuses to marry him unless he creates a lake and a boat for her by sunrise. As Sangkuriang summons the forest spirits to help him in this task, she watches from behind the screen and fears he will succeed.
The story then proceeds through two strands. The first, set in the further past, shows Dewi in her younger days, as she foolishly promises to marry anyone who'll return her mislaid needle - only to have a dog return the item. She happily embraces the marriage when she learns the dog is an enchanted prince named Tumang (hence the aforementioned scene of woman-on-dog coition), and the product of the union is a human son - Sangkuriang himself.
The second narrative, intercutting the first, features scenes of Sangkuriang's courtship of Dewi: their meeting as she descends from heaven, their falling in love, then their sudden separation as she discovers, while combing his hair, that he has a scar on his scalp. It's a slightly puzzling combination of sequences at first, but rather gracefully and subtly done - playwright Ng Swee San quickly has us accept the dislocation of time in the story: mythic time, epic time, dreamtime wherein heroes and goddesses do not age.
The climactic scenes are cleverly withheld until the end of the play. One day, while hunting for food for dinner, the child Sangkuriang shoots a sow - the only animal his mother told him not to kill. When his dog/father Tumang refuses to kill the sow, Sangkuriang beats him/it to death, then rips out his/its liver and cooks it for his mother. Upon hearing about the true source of the liver, Dewi beats her son and runs him out of the house - thus giving him the telltale scar on his scalp.
The story then ends with a return to the present, as Dewi calls on the gods to hasten sunrise, frustrating Sangkuriang in his attempt to finish his task in time. Before rising to the heavens, she reveals to him the story of their origins: she is his mother, and her own mother was the enchanted sow he nearly killed.
It's easy to see why this story intrigued Tan. With its layers of taboo, it almost out-Oedipuses Oedipus: besides the obvious parallels of parental violence and romance, there's the veneration of the dog and pig are held as ancestral totems, despite their being regarded in contemporary Muslim Indonesia as haram. (This last feature is accentuated in the production, with Malay actor Fared Jainal playing both animals.)
Furthermore, Tan's reclamation of this Indonesian tale appears to involve a subtle politics of identity. He's deliberately cast one actor each from the Chinese, Malay and Indian communities, as well as engaging a mixed-race, mixed-gender gamelan orchestra, almost directly mimicking the well-known propaganda images of Singapore as a multiracial society.
SimplyWorks appears to be challenging Singaporeans to accept the folklore of the entire Malay Archipelago as part of our heritage - and why shouldn't we? Before the British came, we were part of the Majapahit Empire, and later the Johor-Riau Empire, both encompassing not only peninsular Malaysia but also parts of contemporary Indonesia. The Brits themselves looked abroad, to southerly Greece, for the source of their dramatic culture. Mightn't we do the same with a closer geographic neighbour?
The play thus works intriguingly as a clash of memes: a modern Singapore population re-enacting pre-colonial Sundanese traditions, each face of the production disrupting and problematising the other - a cross-cultural melee, not dissimilar to the international project of Tan's last major work, Play On Earth.
Yet in terms of dramatic fundamentals, Sangkuriang is worryingly imperfect. As noted, there's a strong flavour of juvenile pantomime suffusing the play, making it hard to take it seriously at times. Some of this is of course due to the inherent nature of the story, as well as to the slightly dowdy period costumes. But it's also in part due to the script: though playwright Ng has experience in screenwriting and romantic comedy, the bulk of her work is in children's theatre and TV. Her dialogue is simple to the point of being bland, its occasional lyricism unconvincing, with spells written in rhyming couplets. With such an atmosphere, Tan's magnificent lighting effects - fireflies, rain, a sudden wash of white light for a heaven-induced dawn - end up looking less sublime than cheesy.
The show's also wanting in terms of its acting. Rajesh Krishnamuti carries the part of Sangkuriang with decent stage presence, but he's unable to truly animate the main character, practically sleepwalking through his lines. And though Serene Chen's proven herself time and again in her many roles in theatre and film, even she can't find a foothold to make the character of Dewi more than two-dimensional. It's only Fared Jainal who shines with his uncanny portrayals of animals: we see him adopt weirdly realistic hoof-walking postures as a wandering pig, then are shocked when as a wide-eyed, gape-mouthed dog he breaks into human speech.
Kudos, however, must be given to Tan for his sensitive emotional direction of the play. He deals with the most horrific moments with restraint: there's a fade-out just as Tumang the dog mounts Dewi, and when Sankgkuriang beats his father to death, we witness no death spasms, but instead a graceful, graduated decline of the body to the ground.
As SimplyWorks's first production. The Enchantment of Sangkuriang
earns a mixed appraisal. It's aesthetically and conceptually rich and
dares to strike out where other theatre companies wouldn't, yet it neglects
those vital dimensions of script and acting that could make it into
a truly solid work. Jeffrey Tan's proven he has some good directorial
skills, so perhaps all he needs is a bit of refocusing to really shine.
He has to remember, it's not enough to be clever or interesting; one
must also be good.
Disclaimer: Ng Yi-Sheng has worked with Fared Jainal at Theatreworks as part of the interdisciplinary collective V.I.S.T.A Lab.
Director Jeffery Tan's made a curious offering at the altar of contemporary theatre: a re-enactment of the Indonesian legend of Sangkuriang, with a full gamelan orchestra, traditional headdresses and sarongs, and not a single direct reference to the 21st century world. What's the audience to make of this? It's certainly aesthetic, what with the traditional music and startlingly simple yet effective lighting effects to convey fireflies or daybreak. And there's a flavourful streak of disorder running through the work - the sequence of events is artfully jumbled, and the all-important scenes of the taboo (like patricide or woman-on-dog sex) are conveyed with subtlety, never overdone - special kudos to actor Fared Jainal for his tender yet unnerving portrayals of humans trapped in the shapes of animals. But at the end of this hour-length piece, one hungers for something more, something truly disruptive, something complex and confrontational. Something - dare I abuse the term? - contemporary.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /