music / “Sticks and Stones”. The Song Company with Oday Al Khatib. At Wesley Uniting Church, March 24. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD
THIS inspiring production, performed by a group of talented actors from the Indonesian ensemble Teater Satu, founded in the late 1990s in Lampung, Sumatra, comes as a breath of fresh air on a theatre scene dominated by elaborately-staged theatrical blockbusters.With its focus firmly on the quintessentially theatrical art of acting, this production breaks down the “fourth wall” and allows the actors to communicate directly with the audience while at the same time relating a story of profound importance to present-day Australia.
It’s a bilingual production in English and Indonesian with effective subtitles and although, by coincidence, this writer understands every word of the dialogue, the rest of the audience could readily follow the action too.
Briefly, the play’s action concerns a 15-year-old boy from the eastern Indonesian island of Rote, who goes fishing one day and doesn’t come home. The story becomes very familiar when we learn that he’s been enticed onto a boat, ended up on Ashmore Reef and been incarcerated on the crass presumption that he is an adult.
Playwright Thibodeaux was plainly inspired by a set of real life stories that should cause shame in all Australians, but she is too clever to lapse into crass propaganda and with the help of the Indonesian ensemble, which includes an offstage “dalang” or puppeteer from Bali, she creates theatrical entertainment that tugs at the heartstrings, gives us a few good laughs and gets us thinking.
The technique of relating the story through an increasingly blind ex-sailor and a mischievous puppeteer allows the story to move through space and time and even underwater, making us feel as if we’re at sea. The ease with which the chief narrator gets our attention provides a timely reminder of the sophistication in the long theatrical tradition of our northern neighbour.
Close-up and personal to the audience on an open stage, the action is backed by a set of screens resembling a sailing ship, onto which the shadowy figures of the wayang kulit are thrown, including a superb Jonah-style whale that keeps intruding on the action. Along with other digital projections, these help trace the story of the boy Ikan, whose very name means “fish”.
There are vignettes of village life, touching family scenes, a satirical courtroom part where the judge is shown as an octopus and an extraordinary episode where the young boy befriends a hardened Australian drug dealer, portrayed as a hammerhead shark.
There is a deliberate and deceptively rough touch to the production which suggests a touring company travelling around villages – this also was refreshing.
“THE Age of Bones” is strongly recommended and despite its serious themes, is suitable for younger audience members.
After its Canberra season, the production runs from March 15-18 at the Australian Theatre for Young People in Sydney, bookings to 9270 2400.