By Kathy Rowland
(642 words, three-minute read)
Suzuki Tadashi is one of the brand names in the international tour circuit, whose productions have earned critical praise and inspired several generations of audiences. A decade on from his last production in Singapore, Electra at the Singapore Arts Festival 2009, Suzuki Tadashi returns to Singapore in May 2019 with Dionysus. The production is one of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts’s opening shows.
Based on The Bacchae by Euripides, Tadashi’s Dionysus is a tale of the carnage inflicted by a vengeful Dionysus, for the slight of having his deityhood denied by his cousin, King Pentheus. Dionysus whips the women of Thebes into frenzied worship that both repels and fascinates King Pentheus. Disguising himself as a female follower, he spies on them, only to fall prey to the devotees.
Dionysus has been part of Suzuki’s repertoire since the 1990s, a vehicle for his collaboration with an international cast of performers, employing his renowned Suzuki actor training method. This latest iteration is the first to features a cast of Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese performers.
Five years in the making, Dionysus is a co-production by Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) and influential Indonesian producer, Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum of Bumi Purnati. Having premiered in Toga, Japan in August 2018, it was staged against the backdrop of the majestic Prambanan Temple, in Yogyakarta in October 2019.
The 15 performers underwent 2 years of rigorous training and the payoff was evident though out the 75-minute performance. The members of the Bacchae displayed a heightened sense of proprioception that resulted in bold movements that appeared frictionless. This was no mean feat, since their red and white costumes turned their limbs into outsized appendages with each step taken. At other points, the immobility of the priests, reflecting the monumentality of the ancient temple in the background, made stillness an entirely watchable experience.
While the Suzuki method rigorously conditions the performer’s body into uniformity – Tadashi explained that all the performers “do not look different … [because they] … all had the same training in their bodies” – he took a different approach with language. “The native tongue of the actor allows them to perform more freely… and bring out what you have inside of you…” he said.
Indeed, there was a cacophony of voices, with Pentheus (Tian Chong) speaking in Mandarin, his mother Agave (Chieko Naito) in Japanese, Cadmus (Jamaluddin Latif) in Yogyakarta Javanese while the women of the Bacchae collectively used Rejang.
Jamaluddin Latif’s Cadmus had a world-weariness that contrasted well with the impetuousness of Tian Chong’s Penteus. Chieko Nato gave an emotionally explosive performance that played Agave’s moment of lucidity somewhere on the register between unjustifiable punishment and human pathos. Dionysus is a tale of arrogance, entitlement and revenge that aptly illustrates how powerful men turn the relational value of women to men – mother, wife, sister, daughter – into the most efficient site of male punishment.
The Indonesian partners in the production include stalwart designer Auguste Soesastro, who clad the Priests in white. Using traditional fibre and fabrication techniques that enrich the monotone with opacity and translucence, the costumes root the priests, who performed their roles in Batak, within the cultural context of Indonesia while avoiding the pitfalls of exoticism. The headgear work by the priests, delicate and white, reproduced the outline of the Prambanan’s spire in the distance.
The location of the Indonesian premiere was an exceptional one. On one hand, it buttressed Tadashi’s rebuke of extreme religious devotion in Dionysus. On the other, it brought a frisson of challenge through the scale and enduring beauty of the temple. While the Singapore production, to be staged in Victoria Theatre, may miss the monumental power of Prambanan as its backdrop, its reduced scale will draw the audience into the orbit of the performers, where the gravitational pull of the work will be hard to resist.
Rehearsal footage by Kathy Rowland
Dionysus by Suzuki Company of Toga & Purnati Indonesia (Japan/Indonesia) will be on at the Victoria Theatre, Singapore on 17 – 18 May 2019, Friday, 8 pm, Saturday 3 pm & 8 pm. Tickets available from Sistic. Early bird discount of 20% applies from 3 Dec 2018 – 25 March 2019
Kathy attended the performance on 30 September 2018 at the Open Air Theatre, Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta. Her trip was sponsored by The Arts House Ltd.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.