Posts Tagged ‘storytelling


Wedhus Gembel


WTF 2014 Brisbane Powerhouse


February 13 – 23 2014


Wedhus Gembel

Created by Snuff Puppets & Indonesian Artists (Indonesia)

Brisbane Powerhouse

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.




The Laramie Project – thoughts

Thoughts from Elizabeth Best, Cast Member of The Laramie Project at Nash Theatre, New Farm.

I still vividly remember how I felt the first time I saw The Laramie Project and heard Matthew Shepard’s tragic story for the first time about 8 years ago. Matt was only 21 years old where he was savagely beaten and left for dead tied to a fence in small town Laramie, Wyoming, in the USA. He suffered this horrendous attack at the hands of two other kids, and he was singled out because he was gay. I remember feeling shocked that anyone could do something like that to another human being, feeling sad that a young life was cut short and feeling hopeful that pieces of theatre like this could bring about change.

So naturally, when I heard Nash was doing Laramie, I jumped at the chance to actually be IN the show that had so captivated me all those years ago.

What is most fascinating to me is that the show is verbatim theatre, which means that the words spoken on stage are taken directly from interviews, court transcripts and other found texts; Laramie Project isn’t just based on a true story, it IS the true story – every single word of it. Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project made six trips to Laramie over the course of a year and a half in the aftermath of the beating and during the trial of the two young men accused of killing Shepard. They conducted more than 200 interviews with the people of the town. They have constructed a deeply moving theatrical experience from these interviews and their own experiences.

Laramie is a show that takes a lot of work: eight actors share more than 60 roles, ranging from local bartenders, to judges, to the perpetrators themselves. My 12 characters include a Wyoming waitress, a lesbian university professor, the girlfriend of the perpetrator and the wife of a homophobic baptist minister. With this in mind, research was a huge part of my process in this show; I needed to know who these people were, where they came from, and where they ended up once the play finished. Then with that information, I needed to figure out how the heck I was going to differentiate between them all! Luckily, some of the characters came from different regions which meant different accents, then the personalities of the characters lent themselves to different voice timbres and, of course, the physicality that comes from the whopping age differences: my youngest character is 21 and my oldest is in her late 50s. And with so many characters, it’s so easy to slip into caricature, which is something I wanted to avoid. That is where the research helped and knowing that these people were real and that their stories continued on after the final words of the play.

The Laramie Project is a show that conveys an important message and shows us the human condition in its many forms; it shows frailty, weakness, hatred, brutality, caring, compassion and most of all, hope. The fact that it is a true story  – Matthew’s story – instilled in me a need to do these people and this story justice and, as one of the Laramie characters Father Roger Schmidt says, to “say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct.”


Thursday – Saturday @ 7.30pm

Nash Theatre

Merthyr Uniting Church

52 Merthyr Road, New Farm


Bloodland or Dear Australian Theatre Industry, Be Careful What You Wish For


Bangarra Dance Theatre with Sydney Theatre Company  & Adelaide Festival Production

QPAC Playhouse 

14th – 18th March  


Wayne Blair, Writer.


When Cate and Andrew ask for a product, you give it. They asked for a show about indigenous issues and here it is. Are you ready for that? I wasn’t. I thought I was seeing a dance production, which may or may not have alluded to land rights, tribal war and racism in this country. But this is the new Bangarra Theatre. This is Bangarra with less of the dance and more of the issues. This is, without doubt, what the future of indigenous theatre looks like. It’s a rich mix of (some) dance, song and theatre, which lets us in, though some of us are welcomed just as far as the door, on the traditional lore and the urban reality of our indigenous people. In case we’re still in denial about any of those issues.

Tomorrow's Dreaming by Jandamarra Cadd


Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law.

Larissa Behrendt, Chair of Bangarra, explains, “The medium of theatre adds a different dimension to Stephen’s storytelling craft with extra layering of language, ceremony and silence.” The Stephen she refers to is, of course, Bangarra Artistic Director and choreographer, Stephen Page, who, along with writer, Wayne Blair, hails from Brisbane. Their lively characters, who live “between two worlds, with one foot in each”, and have come into existence through the collaboration of Page, Blair and cultural mentors, Kathy Balnganyngu and Djakapurra Munyarryun, share the stories of North-East Arnhem Land’s original inhabitants, the Yolgnu. They are familiar stories and very funny scenarios to many in the opening night audience.

The language is the thing. Wesley Enoch explains that the Yolgnu language has “very limited use of adjectives…very complex metaphors…it’s like heightened poetry.” With a smattering of Pidgin English thrown in for good measure and more (traditional) song than dance incorporated (more dance again next time, in Terrain), we can follow most of the story. But I feel…marginalised. Yep. I feel like I’m missing out, like I don’t get the punch line; I feel like I’ve walked into somebody else’s party and I don’t know where the kitchen is. And what the hell is that everybody’s drinking?! You know what? I bet I feel the same way a Yolgnu woman might feel in the audience of any one of the RSC’s productions, which have recently come under fire again for being old-fashioned and elitist, among other things (and juxtaposed, quite rightly, against La Boite’s AYLI, by commentator, Stephen Collins, who has probably seen more than the West End Whingers have, only he doesn’t have a blog)! Watching Bloodland, I feel, quite probably, the way an Eora descendent might feel during a performance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at Belvoir St or perhaps how a local Gubbi Gubbi woman might feel when she comes to see David Williamson’s Travelling North at Noosa Arts in April. Yikes. The tide has turned.

Aboriginal clans divided by the outside interests of the mining corporations, who’ll pay whoever can prove to a Tribunal, their undisputed ownership of the land. Beneath that layer is another, of the Southern Star-crossed lovers and another, of the comedy of modern technology and deeper down again, the inconceivable tragedy, which we might have felt angrier or sorrier about had we seen more of the love story. Reality bites down hard in our indigenous communities, refuses to loosen its grip and shakes its bone angrily, like a mongrel dog (one of the highlights of the show is David Page as the mongrel)! But loss is loss. And though some of us may wail louder and longer than others, we each feel to some degree, the heavy, heavy impact of trans-generational hate and its myriad consequences.

Because the characters of Bloodland are drawn so clearly, because the key moments are not left to the language alone, because the soundscape is so haunting – stillness in the silence and otherwise, birdsong and an undercurrent of incessantly buzzing flies and heat rising from the earth (think of the languidness of Picnic at Hanging Rock before the ascent and then go listen to Camille to hear the one note sustained for the length of an album) – and because we might as well be experiencing the whole thing in GOMA (how about a MONA season too while we’re finding new audiences?) we get that these are essentially not Anglo, not Aboriginal, but human stories, crossing race, culture, custom, creed. I don’t think that’s what we are meant to get  (I think the stories are seen as belonging to the Yolgnu and it feels almost blasphemous to claim them, or even to recognise them) but that’s what we get. And I wanted to get that more.

Bloodland is a landmark production. It blurs the lines, both in form and content, between what contemporary, indigenous and “traditional” or “conventional” storytelling within a theatrical context can be. It throws dancers, actors and storytellers together into the same big pot on the fire and stirs occasionally, letting the contents bubble away until thick, rich broth reaches the top of the pot and boils over, streaming down the sides and sizzling as it hits hot coals beneath.

By all means, continue to claim the stories! Your stories. We acknowledge, respect and value your stories, your connection to the land, your ceremonies and your culture that might seem strange sometimes, to some of us. We desperately want to know more, hear more, feel more (it’s too easy to be dispassionate about issues from which we feel disconnected).

Gilbert by Jandamarra Cadd

The personal is political, remember?

Why not make it more personal for more of us? My fear is that a devoted non-indigenous audience might slowly wean themselves off this exciting new theatrical form. Share the story with us or don’t. Let us in on the joke or don’t. Once you’ve decided which it is, we can go with you on your journey (or not), feel empathy for your characters and be moved and inspired to find out more about those issues you, rightly, feel so strongly about. Or not. And that’s the magic of theatre, past, present and future. I do like to see as many people as possible, being offered the opportunity to experience the magic of theatre.

Bloodland is a Jandamarra Cadd canvas: “the spirit of reconciliation” evident in its creative process but ultimately, the eyes, revealing eons of despair, give the impression that the lines in the sand, between clans and between colours, are still deeply, irrevocably marked.

If this is what the future of indigenous theatre looks like, we have a whole new world, complete with many of the same old issues turned directly on their heads, to sort through next. Well, BRING IT.

Working Progress by Jandamarra Cadd

The images and stories of make the story a bit more personal. If you haven’t found them already, by clicking on the links within the text, take a look and listen now.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow on Bloglovin

Follow us on Twitter

Recent Comments

Bernadette O'Brien on Memorial
Flaunt 2.0  Redevelo… on Flaunt
Trevor Ross on the wizard of oz – harve…