Life and love among the 'cockroaches'

Issue 

The Cockroach Opera
By Nano Riantiarno
Directed by Mark Gaal
Belvoir Theatre, Sydney
Reviewed by Lenore Tardif

Indonesian playwright Nano Riantiarno captures the poverty and oppression of street living in Jakarta, and the corruption of the rich, the military and the bureaucracy.

The heroes are cockroaches — prostitutes, pimps, gangsters. Their common cry is that these are roles of survival against repression and corruption.

True love does not run smooth for stunning, captivating and loving transvestite Julini (Audie Espino) and boyfriend Roima (Darren R. Yap). To finance their life together Roima becomes involved in a subplot of gang initiation, crime and emotional involvement with Tuminah (Jemma Wilks), a young prostitute threatened by her brother when he discovers she has resorted to prostitution during his time in jail.

Julini despairs with every soap opera cliché. A police shoot-out is directed by odious High Government Official, also brothel client (Christopher Pang), whose business interests require the slum to be cleared. Julini is shot, mourned, becomes the focus of slum politicisation and eventually is immortalised as a monument in the city square.

Weaving through this degradation is the Cockroach Spray Seller, spitting out tirades against this omnipresent and indestructible insect.

Espino's performance as Julini is a delight of mincing high camp histrionics and a pathos which is hard to resist.

The action is played out with a brave amalgamation of differing musical styles, some commendable singing, slapstick humour and dance routines from the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre.

"Our production of Cockroach Opera is by way of nature Australian — it is not Javanese theatre but an Australian production of an Indonesian play", acknowledges director Mark Gaal.

This is the riskiest aspect of the production. The cast of non-Indonesian Asians, white and Aboriginal actors playing Indonesians, with interpretations filtered through different cultural frameworks, and the minimal stage setting remove the impact of an Indonesian play.

My Indonesian friend tells me that Riantiarno's treatment of Indonesian issues within his plays leaves the audience to figure out its own conclusions. This version works as an experimental vehicle for actors, dancers and singers from multicultural Australian society and is a brave and worthwhile experiment. But somewhere in the adaptation d audiences, the specifically Indonesian values which inform audience conclusions have been lost.

But for a gorgeous, spangled, wonderfully exuberant portrayal of life, love and survival against all odds, Cockroach endures and proves that monuments can talk and see all.

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