Mourning Becomes Electric
Beauty and horror fused in an Arts Festival offering
By Richard Lord
Some theatre-makers are story-tellers, some are poets, some psychologists, others mere pamphleteers or polemicists. Still others are painters, or composers, while some are sculptors. Ong Keng Sen, the driving force of TheatreWorks, falls more into the category of choreographer-cum-collagist of intriguing theatrical events.
This is most evident in Ong’s and TheatreWorks’ most recent offering, Sandakan Threnody, one of the very few local theatre productions (albeit an international co-production) showcased at the recent Singapore Arts Festival. In this piece, Keng Sen fused dance, music, testimonies gathered in scraps from diaries and official reports, shards of extreme emotions, videos and shamanistic costumes to present a large canvas look at one of the many appalling stories of World War II. (That conflict seems to have produced an endless store of appalling stories.)
Threnody is a word taken from the Greek, denoting a song of mourning, and the programme notes for Sandakan Threnody indicate that this theatrical tour-de-force was itself inspired by a musical work of the same name, composed for tenor, choir and orchestra by Australian Jonathan Mills. This Arts Festival work was an extension of that choral work by other media, with the music again provided by Mills. (Other tonal elements of the show were supplied by Mills, again, along with Steven Adam, a co-producer of this event.)
Sandakan is an area in northern Borneo from where Australian soldiers were forced on a 260 kilometre death march at the end of World War II. Of the 2,000 initial POWs, only six survived, and they survived only as they managed to escape into the jungle. Those who perished often suffered terribly before their final release into death. (The last survivor died almost exactly a year ago, by the way.)
A multitalented, multinational six-member cast presents a stream of images and impressions garnered from these atrocities and their aftermath. (The performance ensemble included three Asian men, one Asian woman and two Australians, reflecting the co-production nature of the work.)
The visuals were clearly the strong card for this show, with the multi-tonal soundscape adding to their impact. The set, designed by Justin Hill, was striking without claiming undue attention for itself. It featured one dark monolith stage left, a mute testament to the horrors and the anonymity forced upon the victims and perpetrators. This monolith was from time to time transposed into a screen for videos (including several wartime newsreels).
But the even more striking component of Hill’s set was a large metallic reflecting structure looming over the stage, slanting slightly towards the monolith. A less imposing but nonetheless key element of the set was a single desk placed deep upstage. From this desk, a women read out Japanese war reports in a flat tone, aided by a gooseneck lamp. That gooseneck lamp made me think of the standard interrogator’s tools, a not inappropriate association here.
From this basic structure, theatre collagist Ong Keng Sen and his team set about to present a stirring patchwork drawn from the Sandakan tragedy. And they used these basic resources well. The reflecting surfaces of the set’s dominant structure were particularly effective when they mirrored the numerous dance pieces strewn across the evening, a major component of this particular performance collage. (One very effective sequence saw a Kabuki dancer, Gojo Masanosuke, perform an elaborate ritual dance in front of face shots of the Australian soldiers involved in the death marches. While I must confess a profound ignorance of Kabuki rituals, this stark sequence did convey a compelling sense of exorcism.)
Some of the physical elements used were a fierce blend of dance and basic acting exercises. A prime example was a wrenching segment wherein one dancer lay on the floor, twitching violently as if a hyper-victim of the nerve disorder known as St. Vitus dance, while other business proceeded around him.
However, when Sandakan Threnody moved beyond the visual and musical to its use of text, it became less compelling. This threnody opens with the flat declaration “This is something I can never forget.” It’s a line that might seem rather banal, quite inadequate when related to such wartime memories. But it takes on a greater charge when you consider that the words are uttered by a Japanese military official; the Japanese, let us not forget, have cultivated something like a national amnesia regarding most of their own war crimes.
Threnody did not, however, escape entirely from the slack jaws of banality: for instance, some of the thoughts of the young Australian on visiting Singapore’s war memorials where his grandfather was a POW were decidedly trite. It could be that the performer, Tim Harvey, wanted to say that tourists who visit such sites these days can only summon such banal responses, but it still left the sense of an opportunity missed. (Harvey’s grandfather actually was a POW at Changi.)
Also, many of the lines lost their force in that they were merely snippets from larger testimonies. Had they been buttressed by a fuller context - or been skillfully juxtaposed with other, more complementary text - they might have reclaimed the full power they had deserved. Here, sadly, they sometimes seemed a bit lost in a jungle of images, cries, words, and other sounds.
Some of the banalities were also non-verbal, such as one of the video sequences which focuses on KFC images from present-day Sandakan. What’s the point of this - that globalisation has softened the sting of wartime memories? That fast food and fast culture has somehow unified us in a hackneyed culture that feeds forgetfulness? Not an insight worthy of inclusion in this piece.
But it must be said that certain lines did work powerfully as individual flashes from the depths of battered souls. One Japanese officer involved in overseeing the atrocities considers the prisoners and remarks, “Within these eyes lie dead men’s secrets.” At another point in the show, we hear the chilling words of one of the few survivors, apparently one who committed suicide 16 years later, admitting that “to survive, you have to kill a lot of civilisation in you”. Lines such as these take on an even greater power as they come from people who knew of what they spoke - they had experienced these horrors from one side or the other.
At another point in the action, a priest referred to the doomed POWs as flickering tallows. This metaphor is followed by the line “Make a wish and blow them out.” Here we had one of the most effective uses of poetic speech in the entire Threnody. However, it was stuck somewhere in the middle of the overall collage. How much more effective it would have been had these lines ended the show.
This is where the diverse sensibilities of different theatre-makers becomes most clear. A poet or a storyteller would have pursued these verbal or narrative elements in the Sandakan tragedy as far as they could go. A theatre-maker as psychologist would have used them to bore into the depths of the characters. Ong Keng Sen was pursuing something quite different, that place where - as he says in his programme note - beauty is revealed as the flipside of violence and brutality. Of course, in pursuing this vision, a theatre-maker runs the risk of having the audience lose sight of the brutality as it is redeemed by the beauty of the production.
On the question of organising the material, one fellow critic came up to me after the final performance and suggested that the show would have been better had it been a half an hour shorter. I would not go that far, but I did concede that a half an hour’s material could have been judiciously excised from the show and the whole would have seemed none the poorer for that excision. Also, it seemed to this viewer that a number of the sequences, and not only the priest’s lines, were arbitrarily placed and could have easily been reshuffled without any loss of pace or flow. It may even have been stronger for the reshuffling.
That same fellow critic readily admitted, “I don’t know if I understood everything.” I replied that I did not think we were meant to understand everything in Sandakan Threnody: It was more a work that communicates through something deeper than rational understanding. As Archibald MacLeish once said of a poem, it should be, not mean. So many things in Sandakan Threnody cannot really be analysed for what they mean; they simply are, or rather, were.
Perhaps one of the enigmas this colleague had in mind was a scene towards the end of the evening when one creature appears in a costume suggesting a porcupine-needled tinsel toy. In our programme notes, Ong Keng Sen informs us that this strange figure is the Hairy Midget, and the duet the Midget dances with two others symbolises a hopeful future when the war wounds are fully overcome.
I was unable to discern any of this, any more than I was able to note that the Kabuki dancer from earlier symbolised “an old woman ravaged by memory” who is then transformed into a bird as “a symbol of hope for humanity”. I did admire the beauty of the Kabuki to which Keng Sen refers, but the wider purposes it was meant to signify? Sorry, I was caught up in the beauty of the dance and also trying to digest what had come right before it.
On critiquing The Global Soul, TheatreWorks’ contribution to last year’s Arts Festival, I wrote that I was more impressed with the effort than moved. Sandakan Threnody, by contrast, I found both impressive and moving. (Though not always at the same time, I should add.) But to understand everything, all of Keng Sen’s notions put into play here, that was beyond my capacity. And beyond the capacity of just about every audience member who saw this show, I would wager.
But then, that is the nature of collages, be they theatrical or hanging in a frame: we can’t really absorb every small detail - but it is certain details, along with the overall impression, that makes a collage effective or not. Sandakan Threnody was most certainly effective on its own terms and did Singapore proud in this year’s Arts Festival.
Did Australia, Borneo and Japan proud as well, and in closing, we should give a deep appreciative nod to the multinational performance ensemble: Matthew Crosby, Tim Harvey, Lok Meng Chue, Gojo Masanosuke, Rizman Putra and Kota Yamazaki.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004