I lived in Darwin for going on five years. Apart from putting me more in touch with Aboriginal Australia, it made me more acutely aware of Timor, little more than a stone’s throw from the northernmost mainland capital. Performing arts from both cultures seemed to be characterised by a distinctive energy; perhaps a necessitous, stemming from ongoing, unrelenting struggle. Now comes Doku Rai (You, Dead Man, I Don’t Believe You), a co-production from The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm (an independent, Melbourne-based production company with a reputation for brave, experimental work), as well as Liurai Fo’er (which translates as “King of Rubbish”, referring to the found objects the company deploys) and Galaxy (also from Timor Leste, a band put together by two of the performers in a bombed-out house in their hometown of Lospalos, just before independence, that’s become one of the most respected in the country); backed by festivals and other organisations from around this wide, brown land.
It’s a baby that was two laboured months in gestation (though it took a full four years to get the finance), in an abandoned colonial hotel in a remote island off Dili, under the watchful eye of director, Thomas M. Wright. Performers Thomas Henning and Melchior Dias Fernandes have remounted the work. The impression left by the finished product is blood, sweat and tears have been invested.
I know not if it’s a deliberately intended part of the experience, but one enters from behind the stage; revealing the workings, if you will. It takes the showbiz out of it and connects us to the story, ideas and players. The essential part of the stage, or set (designed by Robert Cousins, also responsible for the film, Balibo from which the concept for Doku Rai emerged), is formed of (what looks like) little more than knocked-down, plywood packing-crates: flat panels of flimsy, blonde sheets. But these are festooned with flowers and augmented by the presence of a large canoe.
On entering, the band is playing loud music. From there, we experience a traditional ceremony and go on to meet a coterie of whimsical and downright weird characters. Imbued with bizarre humour and a pervasively surreal sensibility, by the end you’re not necessarily narratively the wiser, but you know you’ve had an unusual, intense and thoroughly fulfilling experience. Something’s happened and, even of you’re not quite sure what, it doesn’t seem to matter. There’s a messiah-like figure who turns out to be little more than a very naughty boy. There’s his manservant, who really seems to run the show and has a penchant for appearing in a housecoat. The man commissioned to kill. The man commissioned to document the killing on film, but who returns with an avant garde, festival-ready short. And the man who won’t be killed. Well, ok, he’ll be killed. And is. Repeatedly. But he refuses to die. As you do.
There are at least a couple of takeouts, for mine, from this surfeit of wonderful strangeness, which veers from Tetum to English, Fataluku and Bahasa. Firstly, embedded Timorese folklore has a mystical pull. One gets the feeling there are lessons to be learned, but they aren’t easy, as they’re not explicated or neatly laid-out for us. Secondly, this tenacious zombie, this man that won’t die, necessitating he be killed again and again, serves as a metaphor for the seemingly endless cycle of bloody conflict that attended the birth of the East Timorese nation. Every possible threat seemed to loom, dedicated to its destruction, but it just wouldn’t die. How much blood must be spilt before we declare ‘enough!’ The immortality of this character thrusts a moral dilemma right in our faces. The man who won’t die is the older brother of another who has conspired to kill him. The significance of pitting of brother against brother, especially in the context of such a small country, isn’t lost. Yet you could be forgiven for not allowing your mind to wander to such dark places at all, since all of this is by relatively oblique (optional, if you will) allusion. Should you leave believing you’ve seen nothing more than a blacker-than-black comedy, you’ll still leave feeling as if you’ve had a really decent theatrical repast.
Aesthetically, it doesn’t read like “traditional” theatre, but it’ll be nothing new to, say, Carriageworks or Performance Space loyalists, used to genre-bending, cross-hatched arts encounters. In this case, tough, uncompromising, anarchic and almost recklessly irreverent. And you’ve got to love that. Doku Rai seeps into you like some kind of black magic; a benign curse; a spell. It also gets my vote for Most Outstanding Performance by a Jenglot, for 2013.
It’s the kind of immersive experience you want to have in the theatre. But don’t, very often.
The details: Doku Rai played Carriageworks on September 25-28.