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Review: OZASIA FESTIVAL 2015: THE STREETS Can Be A Dangerous Place To Live

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Friday 25th September 2015

These are The Streets of Jakarta, presented in a no holds barred, warts and all, powerful, moving, and confrontational presentation by Teater Garasi. This is not a tourist destination, tidied up, freshly painted, and sanitised. These are the streets where the poor struggle to survive, unable to obtain or hold any power or respect within a corrupt society, where entrenched bribery is both expected and accepted. "Where is my gift" is the question that follows a request. This is a blatant demand for sums of money in exchange for doing one's job, that runs through all levels of the political and public service hierarchy.

Before even entering the performance in the Space Theatre, we pass a dead body, feet protruding from a rolled mattress. Inside, street people are milling around, going about their daily activities as the audience members enter and are directed to either side of the 'street'. Once the audience was settled, a smartly dressed marching band paraded down the street, and the performance was under way.

The work combines dance, physical theatre, narrative, quotes, projected images, a live band, many costume changes, and a set that is movable to change our perspective, with sheets of corrugated iron being used in a number of ways, both realistically and symbolically. This is a very rich performance that almost overloads the audience and one can easily imagine how overwhelming it could be in a real street in Jakarta.

As well as passers by, there are hawkers, buskers, prostitutes, privileged Muslims, and the constant military police presence, keeping control and ready to intervene at a moment's notice, the hard helmet and Perspex face shield showing a readiness for violence.

Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia who led the nationalist movement against Dutch rule, made a speech which was quoted saying, among other positive affirmations, that no mother should have to worry about having milk for her child. What we see in front of us shows that this was a hollow promise, worsened by Suharto's regime, and subsequent authoritarian rulers. Another quote from a street vendor complains that the cost of soy beans has risen to over ten times his usual profit. These are the truths to those who live and work on the streets.

It is not all bad, cyclists ride through, heading who knows where, ladies walk around under brightly coloured parasols, a couple play badminton in the road, there is music, dance, and song. There is a wedding, but this normally joyous occasion is dimmed by the absence of the bride, who has been forced to leave to take up work as a domestic servant, being the sole financial supporter of the family.

Traditional music and dance are juxtaposed against contemporary popular forms, both the bottom and the top levels of society pass one another and, sitting or standing so close, the audience feels a part of it, engaging with all that is happening, and reacting strongly to what we see and hear. References to, and the ongoing effects of vast swathes of Indonesian history are condensed into the very lives of those on the streets.

A man plays chess with a policeman, women engage in a cat fight, men try to impress the women, everybody runs through or from the rain, and there is death, the body in the mattress making another appearance at the end. The oppressive weight of the government is always felt, holding down the poor, keeping them in their place, using them, and punishing transgressors mercilessly.

Director, Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, and his group have created a work so expressive, empowering and with such believable characters that you almost feel as though you could get up and go for a walk on the street, interacting with those already there. At those times of obvious injustice, in fact, one almost has to stop oneself from doing just that. You do not leave this performance untouched.

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