Tuesday, February 01, 2005

(T) June 25, 2003 - Rashomon

As human beings, we struggle with the many perceptions of truth everyday. What then is "truth"? That was the timeless and uncomfortable question thrown at our face in the play Rashomon currently playing at the Actors Studio Bangsar.

Rashomon, written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and adapted for stage by Joe Hasham and directed and produced by Faridah Merican, is a story about the murder of a samurai, the rape of his wife, and the confession of a bandit. The story explores man’s shortcomings with universal themes such as lust, greed, vanity, honesty, and cowardice.

The genius of Akutagawa, who is blessed with a keen insight into the complexities of human condition and the darker dimensions of human character, also left him a despaired and tortured soul, which resulted in him committing suicide at the age of 35.

He left behind a great intellectual literature in the works of Rashomon.

The play transpired at Kyoto's crumbling Rashomon gate, where several people sought shelter from the pelting rain and while waiting for it to subside, found conversation in discussing a recent crime.

Told through conflicting testimony of witnesses, including the spirit of the murdered samurai, the play demonstrated that facts could have many facets coloured by intentions and perceptions of individuals.

Faridah, who once played the role of the wife in a version of Rashomon staged in the 1970s directed by Abdullah Zainol, was inspired to bring to play to life again after watching a staging of In A Grove last year, a story also by the same author, Akutagawa.

She brought together actors and performers from Malay, Chinese and English performance art disciplines.

The cast include talents such as Ramli Hassan (voice of King Chulalongkhorn in 20th Century Fox's "Anna and the King") as Tajomaru the bandit, Ari Ratos (last seen in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' and 'Ubu Roi') as the Samurai, Merrisa Teh (most recently seen in 'Stories for Amah') as the Wife, and Lee Swee Keong (much acclaimed Butoh choreographer of Nyobah & Dancers) as the Monk. Equally capable are Ceacar Chong (the Court Officer), Terence Swampillai (Woodcutter 1), and Mark Wong (Woodcutter 2).

Joe Hasham's inspiration for his adaptation came primarily from Akira Kurosawa's film version of Rashomon and Takashi Kojima's translation of Akutagawa's original work.

He created an additional character, The Gatekeeper, played by Gan Hui Yee, who plastered herself to the remaining pillar of the crumbling Rashomon gates, while removing herself on and off to speak in rhyming couplets. Then we have the Monk's disciples played by Kiea Kuan Nam and Ian Yang who fleeted in and out of the scenes in a ghostly manner.

As the rogue bandit, Tajomaru, Ramli's performance was most commendable. In each of the four versions (of the narrations), he presented himself unmistakably as the same man but yet subtle differences. Though always a bandit, he was a bandit in love, a bandit with honour, a merciless bandit, or a bandit manipulated by the cunning words of the Wife.

Merissa Teh portrayed the Wife brilliantly. Her character varied the most from narrative to narrative. She is all that a woman chooses to be - wholesome, treacherous, sexy, sympathetic, shameful, or vicious. Seen from various perspectives, she is a victim, a manipulator, an innocent, or a vixen.

Ari, as the Samurai, was a tad too calm and emotionless as he watched his wife being raped by another man. Only his 'spirit' displayed some fiery emotions as he relayed his own death.

The character of the Monk was modified to give the whole play a more aesthetic twist. As the director and cast were exploring the characters during practice sessions, they found it more fitting that Lee coming from a Chinese background should bring out, rather than subdue his cultural and linguistic ability. Hence, the role of the Monk was fashioned as a scholar who speaks in Mandarin.

It does not matter that not everyone could understand the language - the gentleness and calmness of his speech, typical of a Monk, added poetry to the play.

And being a play of Japanese origin, the Japanese language was also used and spoken by the unseen Judge in the Court scenes.

The play began and ended with the Monk guiding his disciples in movements that seemed like a blend of Butoh (dance) and Tai Chi. Since these three actors are talented dancers in their own right, what better way than to exploit expression and story-telling than with graceful dance.

The manipulation of time sequence in the play was superb with the past and present seamlessly woven. Within a scene, the story unfolds, moving forward and flashing back at recollections all at the same time. This was done without change in the set but rather with the help of theatre lighting design by light maestro, Mac Chan.

There was no changes in the set, and that meant that the lighting was also responsible for the smooth transition from location to location. The audience was transported from the gates of Rashomon, to the Court, to the forest where the murder took place, and even briefly, to hell. The lights cast on the bamboo trunks not only created a semblance of leaves gently wavering in the wind, but also an illusion of movement as the Samurai and his Wife traverse the forest.

When it came to choice of colours, there were plenty of greens and reds lit at different levels of intensity. In scenes of conflict, Mac contrasted intense green and red on each sides of the bamboo, which also resulted in very strong shadows as well.

The permanent set was a blend of new and old, designed with the flexibility to be all of the above locations at any one time. Looming in the back is a curtain of bamboos and hidden mechanisms to create the special effect of rain. The impression of straight vertical lines created by the vertically hung bamboos and rain pouring downwards gave a contemporary feel to the set.

On the right, the remaining pillar of Rashomon's gate still stands whereas the other had fallen. The stage floor was scattered with dried leaves. The pillars and stage floor were coloured in fades of grey - a subtle reminder of ruin and moral decadence.

Live music was an important aspect of the play. Led by none other than the gifted Bernard Goh, founder of Hands Percussion Team, he brought the play to life with his original compositions. Like the traditional Japanese Noh theatre, he made the flute and percussion instruments key accompaniments to the play. The small ensemble, sitting by the stage, was made up of a guitar, an electronic keyboard, Chinese flutes (Di Zhi), a Gambang, and several Chinese percussion instruments.

The production took creative liberties with its costumes. The designs, although contemporary, were distinctly Japanese. Costume designer, Cinzia Ciaramicoli, took pains to create the beautiful Samurai’s costume whose long glittery robe flowed gracefully in fight scenes. The sleeves of the Wife’s costume ended with an oval shape held together by metal wiring, giving the outfit a futuristic look.

Overall, the play was put together very well. For its realism, some scenes may not be suitable for young children but it's a play every adult should not miss.

It is worth mentioning that, today nearly a century later, the story (written in 1915) lost none of its fascination or power. The universal and timeless theme of man's shortcomings still prevails and in this sense, Rashomon is a must-see classic.

It's definitely an enjoyable eighty minutes.

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