Adelaide’s OzAsia is a festival to remember

In recent years OzAsia has become one of the highlights of Adelaide’s festival calendar but never more so than in 2018.

The hugely popular Moon Lantern Parade, cruelly thwarted by uncertain spring weather in recent years and cancelled several times, has benefited now that the festival begins in late October instead of a month earlier. More than 40,000 attended this year’s parade which featured contributions from ethnic community groups, schools, performance companies and private sponsors.

Similarly, the Lucky Dumpling Market food and music site, tucked in under the Convention Centre along the River Torrens, created a welcome gathering place for diners, performance patrons and those who were just strolling through to check things out. It has also provided a glimpse of what the whole Festival Centre precinct will be like when the gargantuan, and seemingly never-ending, demolition, rebuild and landscaping is finally completed.

But it is Joseph Mitchell’s impressively curated performance and exhibition program which is making OzAsia an essential destination for interstate visitors as well as local audiences, already exceptionally well served by decades of innovative dance, theatre and music in the Adelaide Festival. OzAsia is a reminder that we are now in the Asian Century and that new things are happening fast – and challenging, in positive ways, the various conventions and traditions of the anglophone cultural project.

It is rather like the extraordinary flowering of Eastern European touring works we saw in Adelaide Festivals from the late 1980s onwards – after the Berlin Wall came down and the old Soviet Union rapidly dismantled. We are again seeing works emboldened by greater freedom of political expression and driven by young artists who travel freely throughout Europe and the US, gathering influences and generating their own.

Among the many excellent productions in this year’s program were a number focussing on the political and personal implications of war and the displacement and trauma it causes.

Baling

Malaysian Five Arts Centre

Four Stars 

Baling is an interesting example of verbatim theatre used to make both historical and current comment. It is based on transcripts of a secret meeting held in 1955 in a school room in Baling, a small north Malayan town near the Thai border. Three key figures met to negotiate what was to be the formation of Malaysia, an independent state now separated from British domination. 

Present at the talks were the newly elected leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Singapore’s Chief Minister David Marshall and, most intriguingly, Chin Peng, the leader of the seven year Communist  insurgency which sought a very different future for the people.  

The production, conceived and directed by Mark Teh, covers the walls of the Nexus Theatre  performance space in photocopied transcripts of the scrupulously minuted discussions. The actors select pages and read the actual words of the meeting.

The tone is formal but unstintingly courteous. This is a meeting of adversaries discussing huge changes with admirable diplomatic rigour. For Chin Peng, the war hero against the Japanese, now deemed a communist terrorist for his campaign against British rule, the demands are too great. He will lay down his arms but not surrender them. The talks continue nonetheless. Sometimes the performance gets too wordy, the repetitions of the debate are historically accurate  but also … repetitive. 

The experience is invigorated by the authenticity of the text, the use of photographs and a newsreel  reporting the events of 1955 with rarely seen footage of Chin Peng and the schoolhouse venue. The actors also interpolate their personal connections to events. Anne James was eight months old when the meeting took place and ponders on the possible parallel future if the meeting had had different outcomes. Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri describes being part of a four hour reading of the Baling transcript, attended by Malaysian Special Branch, and being trolled online as a communist sympathiser. Such is the ongoing, politically motivated demonisation of Chin Peng. 

As a poignant finale, Imri Nasution, also a documentary filmmaker, describes arranging a meeting with Chin Peng, in old age and still living in exile in Thailand. We see the footage; long silences in non-response to questions. The documentary cannot be finished, the crucial interview proving too late. But Imri returns to the tapes and sees something else – the deep sorrow of the elderly warrior, the Malayan patriot longing to return to his home town. A final wish which remains ungranted even in death.

Hello My Name is …

Using text by Edward Bond from Choruses After the Assassinations (Paulo Castro/ Jose Da Costa)

Four Stars

Hello My Name is …is a geopolitical text about an even closer neighbour than Malaysia – Timor Leste. Imaginatively conceived and directed by Portuguese Australian Paulo Castro this confronting monologue, powerfully presented by Timorese national Jose Da Costa, describes the cruelty of the Indonesian occupation and especially the massacre in Dili in 1991 where more than 250 East Timorese pro-independence demonstrators were killed by troops in the Santa Cruz cemetery. Da Costa was a survivor of that event and was subsequently imprisoned. He now lives in Australia.

Castro uses striking theatrical techniques for this performance. The choruses, taken from the works of UK playwright Edward Bond, are –like the songs and choruses in Bertolt Brecht – a drumbeat of vivid images of war and its barbarity. They are not specific to any massacre but describe the trauma of civilians at any place or time. ‘I am the army,” Da Costa declaims, “My feet are tanks, my arms are guns.” The reality of lethal force is present even though it is symbolically presented. There are memorable images laced with grim satire, such as when Da Costa, dressed in army fatigues is preparing a room for peace talks and setting up name plates.

Historical figures are named – Ali Alatas from Indonesia, Gareth Evans from Australia, Xanana Gusmao from Timor, the Independent Anonymous is represented by a human skull and, anachronistically, current UN secretary, the former Portuguese PM Antonio Guterres is included (seen, perhaps, as part of Portugal’s reparation to its former colony.) It is an occasion for black comedy. Tables are pushed closer between Australia and Indonesia as they sip champagne. Evans has on oil can on his desk. Da Costa does a tech run, checking each of the ‘microphones’ which are actually human bones.

This is vibrant performative theatre, accompanied by Castro’s  post-rock soundtrack and crisp lighting. Jose Da Costa is a restorative figure of survival and renewal, capering around, wrapped in the Portuguese flag and singing Timorese songs of liberation. In a well-judged sixty minutes Hello My Name is… captures the horror of recent history without being consumed by it.

Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land

By Stan Lai, Lee Lichun and Performance Workshop

Three and a Half Stars

One of the headliners of the festival is Taiwanese director and playwright Stan Lai’s much celebrated, Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. First presented in 1986, it has become a Chinese classic in both Taiwan and on the Chinese Mainland. At any time, dozens, even hundreds, of productions are being presented and Stan Lai enjoys a very high profile- as was evident in the audience response to his curtain call on first night.

The play is, in fact, two plays – a mash-up if you like. They are  plays in very different keys. Secret Love is the story of a young couple who meet in Shanghai and who lose contact in the upheaval of the Chinese Communist revolution of 1948. Jiang (Fan Kuang-yao) returns to Taiwan unaware that a year later Yun (Chu Jr-ying) has escaped to Taipei where he lives. Both have subsequently married but Jiang, now gravely ill , takes out a front page newspaper advertisement in search of his lost love. To the consternation of Mrs Jiang, Yun contacts her suitor and they have one last meeting. It is, at times, a rather mawkish Brief Encounter but tenderly told.

Peach Blossom Land is a bawdy farce about Lao Tao (Tang Tsung- sheng) a cuckolded husband, his sprightly wife Chun Hua (Chang Pen-yu) and the opportunistic landlord, Master Yuan (Chu Chung-heng). The lovers persuade Tao to go a journey in the hope that he will meet his death. Instead he finds himself in Peach Blossom Land, a kind of Shangri La where he is welcomed by two people filled with sweetness and light who exactly resemble Hua and Yuan. Tao is transformed by this experience and returns to his home to find his now unhappy wife struggling with an infant and the ill-tempered Yuan.

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The premise of the production is that these two plays are being rehearsed in a theatre which has been double booked. As they quarrel over access to the stage, each company presents a portion of their narrative before they are interrupted and replaced. A third play emerges which is about the backstage conflicts and provides some droll comment on the antics of imperious directors.

The effect, of course, is one of wrenching genre swings between tragedy, or at least pathos, and low comedy which ultimately becomes bleak as the story concludes. These theatrical mood swings have their enjoyable moments – quick fire slapstick and romantic tristesse, and the struggle between companies as their décor and props get mixed up. Watching them occupy the stage simultaneously is fun and especially enjoyable to share  with a Chinese audience who were clearly getting more from the text than from the surtitles. But at times the task of sustaining the unfolding narratives becomes burdensome and the production loses some of its sparkle.

That said, the play carries more complexity than its studied frolic suggests, especially when, in these very disparate plays, the themes of lost opportunity and wasted longing for the past, become closely intermingled.  OzAsia has afforded a terrific opportunity to see a signature Chinese work which so affectionately celebrates the pleasures of theatre itself.

 There have been many productions which deserve special mention. The Syrian play While I was Waiting (reviewed previously for Daily Review) will be long-remembered by those fortunate enough to see it.

Similarly,  Here is the Message You Asked For … Don’t Tell Anyone Else ;-) (Four Stars) the living tableau of Chinese teenage girls living in their bunk bedrooms in a fluffy cocoon of manga fantasy, glued to their mobile phones, was a fascinating glimpse into the new China.

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Designed and directed by 30 year old Sun Xiaoxing it provided a hypnotic theatrical experience where language was so insignificant it didn’t warrant translation, and where the audience could openly text from their phones their collective puzzlement, delight and discomfort. Powered by a female trio of brilliant pop musicians and ending in a wild rumpus of soft toys and soap bubbles, The Message (we didn’t know we were asking) is that texting does not a community make. It is time to come out of our cyber caves and really connect.

War Sum Up

Hotel Pro Forma

Five Stars

How do you sum up War Sum Up? Surely the ultimate highlight of this rewarding festival. Hotel Pro Forma was founded in 1985 by Kirsten Dehlholm, who has since produced more than 100 works, including the visually stunning Operation:Orfeo which featured in Barrie Kosky’s 1996 Adelaide Festival and has been much talked about ever since.

War Sum Up is certainly greater than the sum of its extraordinary parts. The program describes it as “Music. Manga. Machines” but that does not encompass the elegiac impact that this meditation on war carries. Essentially the success of this chamber opera is its splendid music. Latvian composer, Santa Ratniece has created, with unlikely collaborators Gilbert Nouno and UK electronica outfit, The Irrepressibles, led by Jamie McDermott, a score of unexpected beauty and tonal variety.

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Under the baton of Sigvards Klava, the Latvian Radio Choir of eleven singers, plus solo soprano, Ieva Ezeriete, deliver the sparse libretto to create a sense of sustained melancholy. The instrumental accompaniment – clusters of violins skilfully blended with electronica brings an unexpected freshness and accessibility to the work.

Like other composers from the Baltic States such as Arvo Part , and Gorecki from Poland, Santa Ratneicehas found a mournful and meditative style which carries all the gravity and beauty of Thomas Tallis and Gesualdo from the  16th and 17th century.

Staged on a two tier scaffold with massive back-projections and eye-popping lighting, War Sum Up is based around three characters, archetypes really, from the Japanese Noh theatre. Each highlights the misery and futility of war – The Soldier (sung by Aigars Reinis, The Warrior (Gundars Dzilums) and The Spy (Ilze Berzina).

The choir’s costumes, with exception of the soloists, are in neutral colours. They are vaguely military with quilted shoulder pads and three quarter length coats. If they have Japanese influences then it is via Issey Miyake and the goggles, caps and other headgear are reminiscent of Grace Jones – or maybe the pantaloon clowns of Maxfield Parrish. Their effect is strangeness, there is a suggestion of military caricature,  but they are never ludicrous or out of place.

The manga projections were specially created for this production by Hikaru Hayashi and from the startling black and white engraving effects to the functional exploded diagram images of weaponry and tanks (in blacks and oranges), they are galvanising.  As is Jesper Kongshaug’s lighting design. The density of the colour saturation in greens and blues and, especially, the haemoglobin red, completes the synaesthesia that is Kirsten Dehlholm’s superbly integrated mise en scene. 

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 22 years to book a night at Hotel Pro Forma.

Visit murraybramwell.com 

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