Doku Rai
Black Lung Theatre @ Queen’s Theatre
8:30pm, Thu 28 Feb 2013
I was utterly thrilled to see Black Lung lauded in the launch for the 2013 Festival; their presence in the 2007 Fringe was massive, with both awards and audience plaudits richly deserved. More of the same with a Festival budget? Oh, yes please, I thought to myself.
After seeing The Smile Off Your Face earlier in the day, and having just been amazed by Skeleton, I was positively giddy walking into Queen’s Theatre; a drink from the bar, ten minutes exalting the previous performance’s virtues to some friends, and I felt on top of the world. The promise of a Black Lung head-fuck almost felt like too much goodness for one day.
Wandering into the performance space, I suffered an odd flashback to 2000’s Ur/Faust – there was smoke a-plenty, with a large temporary seating area that was springy underfoot. Comfy cushions were offset by a lack of backrests, but we’re buffeted by a band (Galaxy) rocking away at the back of the set (which is a murky collection of drapes and plantlife and canoes and not-much-light).
The house fills, the band stops playing, and there’s an awkward moment as they clear offstage and make room for the first act. It’s delivered in a mix of English and (presumably) a language native to East Timor (Tetun? it sure didn’t sound like Portuguese), with surtitles occasionally visible through the smoke, projected onto various pieces of the set. The inconsistent nature of the surtitles (and the muffled sound from the performers themselves) made following Doku Rai a bit of a chore; the eye would have to peer through the haze to try and locate translations somewhere new (and on several occasions I searched in vain for the text, only to realise that my lugs had mislead me, and that the muted speech had been English the whole time).
But it’s an engaging tale… in the beginning. One young man is bullied and harangued by his older brother; in desperation, he seeks to have his sibling murdered. After witnessing the violent death, the younger brother is then startled to see his elder return from the dead… only to be killed again, and again, and again, with the subsequent slayings becoming almost farcical – a joke unto themselves. The fact that the younger brother insists on the deaths being recorded on video creates a dark sense of bemusement; this carries over into some of the other characters’ interactions with the dead man walking.
The unexpected stage presence of a live rooster caused one of my neighbours (who, it turned out, is ornithophobic) to noticeably tense… which is a far stronger emotional response than the work ever caused me. Because at the end of the performance, I was left befuddled: was there a point to all of this? If so, did the production fail to make it, or did I just miss it? Whilst I could appreciate the production values of the piece – some of the staging, including the gorgeously constructed bath scene, was hauntingly dream-like – they felt largely inconsequential; the story of Doku Rai could have survived just as well without the complex and ever-evolving set, the elaborate-without-a-need lighting, and even the live band.
The closing moments of the performance – when the entire cast gather onstage to sing whilst video footage of the work’s East Timor development was played – suggests that there was a lot of effort behind the production. It certainly seems to treat the native culture with a great deal of respect, and delves deeply into native mythology… but the end result somehow feels shallow.
There was precious little detail of Doku Rai‘s content on hand at the 2013 Festival launch event, and – in retrospect – the cynic in me should have picked up on that; the whole thing reeks of a production where a bunch of money has been committed to the project without any real expectations of outcomes. Sadly, it really felt as if this mega-co-production was given enough rope to hang itself.
— Pete Muller (@festivalfreakAU) February 28, 2013