BWW Review: OZASIA FESTIVAL 2015: MWATHIRIKA Looks At Revolution Through Children's Eyes

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 26th September 2015

Papermoon Puppet Theatre, founded by Maria Tri Sulistyani and Iwan Effendi, presented Mwathirika, a tale of the rural life a nine year old boy, Moyo, his four year old brother, Tupu, and their father, Baba. It is set in the transition years between the end of President Sukarno's rule and the start of General Suharto's reign.

Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, quickly gave up on a British style of parliamentary democracy and shifted to what he called a 'guided democracy', which was actually an autocratic approach to rule that gave him more power. Australians might well recognise what happened, as the current government here seems to be heading that same way. From 1965 there was a military uprising against his regime. In 1967 there was a military coup, and General Suharto took control, imprisoning Sukarno for the final years of his life.

Suharto conducted a purge of Communism, which meant many thousands of people were murdered, or disappeared. Authoritarianism and corruption were the hallmarks of his New Order regime. An estimated half million people lost their lives during the purge, although some even suggest that the figure was anything up to three million, and a million and a half were imprisoned.

This performance reduces those figures to a very personal tale of a father and his two sons, and the nearby neighbour, the father of a girl who is confined to a wheelchair. The little girl, Lacuna, and Tupu are friends, but her father, Haki, keeps them apart, because Baba is a Communist. He does not want to be associated with Baba, for his own safety and that of his little girl. At first, though, we do not realise this.

It all begins simply, naively, with Tupu playing on a hobby horse, until frightened by a loudly barking dog. Moyo is a protective older brother, and Tupu has a red whistle around his neck to blow when he needs Moyo's help. In response to the whistle Moyo appears and tries to chase the dog away, resorting to throwing the hobby horse at it, breaking it in so doing. Lacuna has been given a musical box by Haki, which she offers to Tupu to stop his crying, but he rejects it, and Haki calls her away. Luckily, Baba appears with a red balloon for Tupu, which cheers him up, giving his father time to repair the toy later.

A red triangle is painted on Baba's window shutter, and Haki sweeps around his house, pretending not to be watching. When people come looking for Communists and they see the red triangle, Haki nods towards Baba, and he is taken away. The brothers wait, and live as best as they can, counting off the days until Moyo, too, is taken and imprisoned. Tupu blows his whistle endlessly, the sound getting weaker and weaker, until it has gone. For Haki, who is already feeling bad enough, there is yet far worse to come.

The one drawback was the setup in the venue, with the small puppets and their seated operators being hidden by the patrons, each row blocking the view of the row behind. The further back one sat, the more the action was obscured, with heads nodding left and right to try to see. The further downstage the action, the harder the puppets were to see. A stage raised a half metre or so would probably have solved this.

Even so, the emotional level of the work, the poignancy of looking at this horror through the eyes of children, comes through strongly. Papermoon Puppet Theatre brings home the tragedy of those years in an hour, far better than any books or pages of academic analysis, or facts and figures. There were several damp looking eyes among the members of the audience as they left, which shows how moving this piece had been.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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