WTF 2014 Brisbane Powerhouse
February 13 – 23 2014
Created by Snuff Puppets & Indonesian Artists (Indonesia)
Brisbane Powerhouse Stores Building
February 18 – 22 2014
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
A collaboration between Melbourne’s Snuff Puppets and independent Indonesian performers, Wedhus Gembel combines puppets, dance, theatre and music to retell an Indonesian fable about the cycle of life and the power of nature.
There are more photos to come, and I could tell you so much more about this awesome production, like why it made me think of Woodford Folk Festival’s Fire Event, and the subtleties of the story itself. But it would take even longer to add a lot more and you’re busy, and I want you to know that the best thing you can do is try to get any of the last remaining tickets and experience it for yourself. Wedhus Gembel is magic and it must finish Saturday. Go, before it disappears.
Bi’unang guguru ti gunung. Beunang nanya ti Guriang.
I have been taught it among the mountain, I have enquired after it from the mountain spirit.
In a Javanese village, a young couple desperately wants a child. The old couple of the village tries to help by telling them the old stories, which contain many lessons about “walking with nature, not against it.”
The couple is blessed with a child from Gunung Merapi, a sacred volcano but the baby, born ugly and green and loathed by all except its mother, grows into a giant beast and devours the villagers, including its father and mother. The beast actually tears wayang golek style heads from people; it’s quite terrifying. Poppy and I recognised the similarities between the beast and Elphie, in Wicked. Born different, feared and detested, bullied, ostracised, learned to hate, learned to destroy. I held Poppy while she sobbed because the people hated the baby.
The Javanese clown god, Semar, convinces the creature to regurgitate the people, giving back all he had taken, and the people dance together in celebration of their new life. In the chaos of the devouring and the dancing, three random audience members were eaten up, and the girls did a terrific job of portraying spewed and pooed out people!
The last thing to come out of the belly of the grown-up-grotesque-baby-creature is Wedhus Gembel – the sheep or shaggy goat – and the sheep is the beast, banished forever to the mountains. The same name is given to the toxic hot white cloud of gas that rolls down the side of the volcano. When Mt Merapi erupts every 5-10 years, the land is decimated and people die. So it’s just as easy to understand the Javanese word “gembel” in its third context – that being, a destitute person who has lost everything, possibly as the result of a natural disaster, and regarded as little more than garbage.
If it sounds strange that’s because it is – to us at least. (Strange = different). It’s another culture’s folklore and I can imagine the Javanese might think it strange to make a national hero of a criminal. Of course, they might be more inclined to believe a serpent has carved out the landscape.
Wedhus Gembel is a wonderful, colourful, chaotic collaboration between the individual Javanese artists and Melbourne based company, Snuff Puppets, who are well known for their extraordinary puppets, having appeared at theatres, rock concerts, pubs and nightclubs, festivals and street events everywhere. Their WTF14 performance was originally scheduled to be outside on the Turbine Platform but for whatever reason we saw it in the Stores Building, the home of Vulcana Women’s Circus, which was a swelteringly hot and sweaty space; very tropical, very appropriate.
Poppy and I sat on cushions on the floor, effectively making us front row fodder, and there were times when she hid her head in my lap, genuinely wary of the leering faces of wayang golek faces on the performers, and of the village rooster, and of Wedhus Gembel himself, as each stepped over us and through the audience. Many of the slightly older children raced to secure front row cushion positions half way through the show, when they realised how different their experience might be. The magic of the theatre, in this case, is that this show is ACTUALLY for the whole family, and it is especially for all the brothers who have ever sneered at ballet concerts. (My brother, who is coincidentally currently teaching in Jakarta, never did! He would join us, donned in a borrowed leotard, in the lounge room for rehearsal!). The juxtaposition of contemporary Javanese culture against the ancient repeats and repeats, with characters on mobile phones and listening (or not) to the old stories at the same time. The hand-painted riot of colour on one costume is peeled off, making way for another – it’s “business attire”, all depressing, conforming, suffocating black – and an entire city scene, complete with traffic soundscape, reminds us that we are all the same, and we are still the same.
As if there were not enough action to keep up with on stage, there is also the dalang (puppet master) on stage right, providing various voices, traditional song stuff and gorgeous gamelan accompaniment. I know, after several hours/days of the Mahabharata or Ramayana I might feel differently, but I’ve only ever experienced abridged productions and I love the sounds in shortish stints.
We see a traditional wayang kulit performance, but we see it from the reverse – from backstage – which gives us the unique advantage of viewing the characters viewing the play, as we must in Hamlet when the players come to visit, though the effect of the shadow puppets is a little less awesome from this perspective. A reminder that we are not in control, perhaps. I love that we get just about the entire repertoire of traditional Indonesian arts and a big spoonful of culture in this production. For those unfamiliar with it, Wedhus Gembel actually makes a powerful introduction to the culture, and to the sense of ritual and ceremony in so many modern cultures. We even get the fragrance of incense, which is brought in ceremoniously by the performers as they enter the space. So many elements of ritual are glossed over in the theatre, but this show makes a point of stopping still and observing ceremony, giving the story just as much, if not greater, relevance now than it may have had historically.
The city characters and their choreography, along with clashing, discordant sounds make me shudder and Poppy and I whisper about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and pollution, and why kids and their parents should see this show. Yes, we conducted an entire conversation during the show! I know! There is enough noise and enough extended action at one point to be able to do so. Despite its length (about 60 minutes duration), Wedhus Gembel suffers only once from slow pace self indulgent syndrome, but this section also allows some time for reflection; there is a lot to take in, after all. In the car on the way home, Poppy hits RECORD on my iPhone and after she’s said, “Goodbyyye” and hits STOP she listens to our chat play back all the way from Caboolture to our Buderim exit. She tells me the most important part of the show is that we get the message not to hate others. We can learn hate but we should never be taught hate. We are, after all, all the same.