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Two Visionaries Of Indonesian Theatre

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Ian Brown

Teguh Karya and Suyatna Anirun were each inspired by traditional and popular forms of theatre throughout Indonesia, as well as the Western forms of theatre they adapted for the stage. Their style of theatre resided in the realm of intercultural practices that all theatre artists in Indonesia now revere.

Perhaps better known in the Western world for his international standing in the realm of film, Teguh's career in the theatre spanned a period of twenty-five years from 1968 to 1993. Teguh, of Chinese ancestry, was born in Pandeglang, West Java, on 22 September 1937. His former name was Steve Lim, but assumed his current name when Suharto's New Order regime repressed the social presence and activities of the Chinese communities in the early days of his presidency.

Undeterred by repression, Teguh's Teater Populer was inaugurated on 14 October 1968 in the Bali Room of Jakarta's first modern international star-rated hotel, the Hotel Indonesia. Two short plays were performed to mark the occasion; they were adaptations of Western works, Antara Dua Perempuan (Between Two Women) by Alice Gerstenberg and Kammerherre Alving, Teguh's version of Hendrik Ibsen's Ghosts.

Two key elements of Teguh's theatre and films were naturalism and realism. These western influences derived from his studies at the Akademi Teater Nasional Indonesia (National Theatre Academy of Indonesia) in Jakarta, where he entered in 1961.

Teater Populer's core repertoire was adaptations of Western plays. Notable among them were The Marriage and The Inspector General by Nicolai Gogol, Tartuffe by Moliere, The Father by August Strindberg, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechwan and Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding. Teater Populer only performed two plays originally set in Indonesia, namely, Dag Dig Dug by Putu Wijaya and Jayaprana, a play based on the story of a legendary Balinese hero warrior, by the Dutch writer Jef Last.

Teguh continued to apply intercultural forms of stage presentation by adapting Sophocles' Antigone into the social and cultural environment of the Batak people of North Sumatra. The performance tradition of the Balinese dance dramas such as Barong, Gambuh and Arja influenced the style Teguh adopted for Jayaprana. This is the last recorded stage work performed by Teater Populer before it disbanded. Teguh Karya then dedicated himself fully to film and television sinetron. He had previously engaged with the medium of television for high quality play performances by Teater Populer since 1969.

Suyatna Anirun is rarely mentioned abroad, but in Indonesia itself his reputation as a great director and actor has impacted on the development of modern theatre throughout the archipelago. Born on 20 July 1936 in Bandung, West Java, in 1958 Suyatna, together with other artist colleagues, established Studiklub Teater Bandung (Study Club Theatre of Bandung), which became known simply as STB. Its first performance in March 1958 was Jayaprana. Suyatna had been educated not in a theatre arts institution, but through the Faculty of Fine Arts and Design at the renowned Institut Teknologi Bandung (Bandung Institute of Technology), ITB, where the former first president of Indonesia, Soekarno, had studied.

Suyatna directed plays in both the tradition of Western realism and through acculturation of performance traditions from the Sundanese region of West Java. Like Teater Populer, STB main repertoire was adaptations and translations of Western plays. Among the more notable Western playwrights were W. B. Yeats, Anton Chekhov, G. B. Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Pinero, Gogol, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Albert Camus, Jean Girradoux and Max Frisch.

STB also performed works by a number of Indonesian playwrights, such as Kirjomulyo, Utuy Tatang Sontani, Misbach Yusa Biran, Ajip Rosidi, Motinggo Busye and Saini K.M.. Their plays share a prime place of literary importance in the development of modern Indonesian theatre.

The performance genres of longser and masres from West Java were a fitting style for adaptations of plays such as Ben Jonson's political satire Volpone or The Fox for which Suyatna chose to use traditional masks in his version titled Karto Loewek. Costuming for this performance was the customary dress of the Sundanese, both formal attire and everyday street clothes were worn. A similar treatment was applied to the performance of The Matchmaker by Gogol adapted by Suyatna as Mak Comblang, but mixed with modern day dress.

Performance aesthetics were always paramount in Suyatna's theatre. He maintained that the theatre was primarily a source of entertainment despite the presence of its didactic. In many respects the essence of his theatre was Brechtian, a fact many Indonesian (and Western) critics and writers recognised when analysing the performance style of STB. Although well acquainted with the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, curiously Suyatna waited for twenty years before he directed Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, which was performed in 1978 with the title Lingkaran Kapur Putih. Its success ensured performances in Jakarta at the arts centre, TIM, the nation's international showcase for the prime products of Indonesian art.

Perhaps the highest peak Suyatna reached was his production of Shakespeare's King Lear (Raja Lear) for STB. First performed in Bandung in April 1986, it was heralded by critics and the public alike for the virtuosity of Suyatna's performance in the role of King Lear. Prior to King Lear, Suyatna had directed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (Romeo dan Yulia) in November 1993 followed by A Midsummer-Night's Dream (Impian Di Tengah Musim) in August and September I991.

The theatre performed by STB and directed by Suyatna was distinguished by its diversity of repertoire, its constant exploration of new forms through acculturation of performance traditions and its constant high standards of performance. STB itself also has the reputation of being the longest active group in the history of modern Indonesian theatre.

The theatre world of Indonesia has paid its last respects to these two visionary artists. Teguh died in Jakarta on 12 December 2001, Suyatna died in Bandung on 4 January 2002.

Ian Brown [darian@indosat.net.id] completed his PhD at NTU and is now an independent writer and theatre researcher in Bandung.

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002

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