Donna Sue Robson is a freelance writer and essayist specialising in the arts, Latin dance; & natural & alternative therapies for people and pets. Check out her own energy-healing consultancy and boutique natural products at www.jamienatural.com
A new benchmark in cross-cultural theatre-art
The banter between 'Old Man' and 'Dalang' is authentically 'Indonesian'. I can imagine that this engaging duo may be given even more license to improvise when performing in Indonesia. The Age of Bones was shortlisted for the Griffin Award and won the NT Literary Award (Brown's Mart Script Award).
The Age of Bones (Jaman Belulang) is one of my all-time favourite theatrical experiences not just because of its high-quality production, but because Sandra Thibodeaux's vision of fact-based story-telling authenticates cultural sensitivities and traditions.
The Age of Bones is the dramatization of the incarceration of 60 Indonesian boys who worked on asylum seeker boats. These young boys were lured by a cash reward of $100, to clean, cook and staff the refugee boats headed for Darwin. From poor families and villages well-accustomed to maritime adventure, the offer did not seem dodgy or layered with risk. The boys would not be away for too long, and would return with money to feed impoverished families. But was a harsh and histrionic chapter in Australian migration policy.
These boys from remote islands and villages who had no English, proof-of-identity or representation, were captured off the coast of Darwin and jailed in an adult prison, in some cases, for up to 6 years. It is through the eyes of 15-year-old Ikan (Imam Setia Hagi) from Rote that we see just how terrifying the experience would have been and are shown another side of the injustice: how the boys' imprisonment impacted on their families in Indonesia. With no contact or notification, villagers presumed that their children were dead. The Age of Bones is like an ocean-tidal wave: it shows how poorly constructed immigration law creates a rampage of indefensible destruction across borders. This is a story that through theatrical story-telling, focuses on the need for international law and national legal systems to be founded on a new moral compass that understands the precarious nature of poverty and village life.
The Age of Bones fuses a myriad of theatrical ploys suitable for a small-stage format. Script-craft is outstanding: this bi-lingual production maintains pace and has clear, emotional definition and dynamism. A co-production from Performing Lines, Satu Bulan and Teater Satu theatre companies, The Age of Bones combines culturally traditional forms of story-telling with modern symbolism and theatre-craftsmanship. You will experience: Wayang Kulit puppetry, character-driven narration, video, improvisation, parody, mimicry and comedy, and scripted theatre that is powerful because of its biographical underscore.
The Age of Bones is written by Sandra Thibodeaux, who is as passionate about cross-cultural collaboration as she is about telling real life stories. The play finishes in Sydney on the 18th and then travels to Parramatta and Darwin.
I particularly love the inclusion of Wayang Kulit in The Age of Bones as it makes the show truly 'Indonesian'. Puppeteers (Dalangs) I Made Gunanta and I Wayan Sira are totally accomplished theatre artists. To modernise the wayang, careful attention has been paid to both set-design (Dann Barber) costume (Dann Barber and Imas Sobariah) and lighting (Philip Lethlean). Artistic details not only re-inforce central cultural messages but successfully turn a hard-edge story into an entertaining and magical theatrical experience.
It is easy for urbanised Australians to under-rate the impact that the sea has on survival and collective cultural consciousness. The Age of Bones 'brings it home' as the sails of the ship also become the Dalang's puppet canvas, a projection screen for subtitles, and an oceanic backdrop to 'underwater' court scenes where characters transform into their 'marine archetypes'. These 'snappy' under-water scenes transform shadow puppetry into 'life-size' puppetry and show, in a digestible way, the ridiculous nature of this entire incarceration story and its culprit, Australian migration law. As policeman became underwater divers and the judge an octopus, we witness the mismatch of culture and watch the drama unfold with disgust, embarrassment and disbelief.
The Age of Bones, directed by Alex Galeazzi, is such a fascinating production and powerful story-telling experience, that it is easy to neglect the brilliance of the cast. The depiction of 'country' and cultural-voice through every character, is clever and compelling and all drive the story forward. However, the on-stage relationship between Old Man (Deri Efwanto) and Dalang (Mohammad Gandimaulana) deserves special mention: they weave 'lightness' into the story and their improvisatory banter adds surprise and unpredictability. Both actors, who excel in physical humour and facial theatrics, have been clearly understood by directors Iswadi Pratama and Alex Galeazzi and their talent has been fully nurtured. The lead role of Ikan is played by Iman Setia Hagi who totally embodies the 15-year-old mind-set and successfully leads our emotional journey.
I would also like to make special mention of Ella Watson-Russell who plays the lawyer. Not only is her role challenging because it is bi-lingual, but she ever-so-gently becomes a focal point for yet another universal yet cross-cultural theme: the solidarity of mothers. Throughout this performance, Ella carries and develops the elements of motherhood: courage, strength, advocacy, grief, hope, pain and devotion. Motherhood becomes the spotlight when, inspired by Ikan's mother, Ella works through her own grief and 'phones home'.
The Age of Bones is a production constructed through respectful collaboration. At the Q&A session chaired by La Mama, perspectives from the playwright, human-rights lawyer, actors and academic-linguistic interpreters were voiced. All displayed a sense of pride in the play, commitment to the cause and a joint vision as to 'that which art can accomplish'. Cast and crew paid homage to the village of Rote and its real-life characters. It is very clear that through writer-crew intense fact-finding missions to Rote, Sandra and her team formed life-long bonds with families, villages and artists and audiences.
It was wonderful to see Melbourne's Indonesian-Australian community support La Mama Courthouse's season. The audience that came from Universities offering Bahasa and arts-cultural organisations such as Radio National and The Australia Council, thoroughly appreciated the work that has gone into creating a bi-lingual and cross-cultural production. There are simple and easy-to- follow sub-titles for audience members not fluent in Bahasa. Kadek Krishna Adidharma is the translator and also needs to be acknowledged.
The Age of Bones, as a script, performance and collaborative cross-cultural project is a living-art epic. It evokes strong imagery that is the work not just of an award-winning playwright with a clear talent for engaging other creative minds, but of a poet. It inspires the audience to action.
Across Australia, The Age of Bones has already been viewed in Melbourne and Canberra and has chosen Darwin as its natural resting place. I sincerely hope, however, that the show will enjoy a new or extended season in other parts of Indonesia (it has already been seen in Lampung, Bandung and Tasik Malaya) and as one audience member exclaimed, 'is worthy of film treatment and other arts-adaptation'.