The first presentation by the London International Festival of Theatre in its new year-round incarnation since this summer's festival "proper", The Theft Of Sita, is an Australian-Indonesian collaboration which is visually mesmeric and burgeoning with thematic fecundity, so much so that I feel guilty about noting that sometimes its wealth of rich ingredients don't mesh together perfectly.
Just as the traditional technique of Balinese shadow puppetry is blended here with modern puppet designs and video projections, so contemporary ingredients are brought to the Ramayana's tale of how Lord Rama's beloved Sita is abducted by the demon Rawanna. As Rama's comic servants Twalen and Merdah embark on their search for Sita, they pass through a forest plundered by international loggers where the wildlife flees a raging inferno, and past Balinese rice terraces thirsty for irrigation because the water has been diverted to tourist activities (a puppeteer's Indonesian accent in this sequence produces the felicitous coinage "white-water raptors"), before arriving in Rawanna's capital city of Lanka. This is a nightmare version of Jakarta – skyscrapers, murderous traffic, poverty and oppression – and the depiction of Sita's rescue mingles with the popular uprising which led to the overthrow of Soeharto.
The esteemed Julian Crouch's design includes puppets with the bodies of factory buildings and the limbs of industrial diggers, and forest scenes in which strange guitar-beasts gambol next to deer and birds. The latter reflects Paul Grabowsky's score, which attempts to mingle western jazz with gamelan-based Balinese music: it must be said, though, that too often the idiosyncratic power and charm of each of these forms is lost as they negotiate a common ground less interesting in practice than it is in theory. Likewise, some of the hybridisation in the storytelling has an Aussie robustness which can seem crashingly unsubtle amid its surroundings.
That said, however, the traditionally dominant role of the comic underlings propels the story, keeping things on an earthy human scale. (Indeed, once or twice Twalen and Merdah recall South Park's Terrance and Phillip in their preoccupations.) And the blending of east and west, ancient and modern never seems gratuitous or motivated simply by whim. Indeed, it was apparently the case that the reality around Jamieson during his initial devising/rehearsal period in Bali in 1999 forced its way into the story. It is this embracing spirit, finding hope in inclusiveness and diversity, that lies at the magical heart of The Theft Of Sita.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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