Tadashi Suzuki’s production of Dionysus is by no means new, created in 1990 based on Euripedes’s The Bacchae. Suzuki himself, whose productions have garnered international praise from several generations of audiences, is no stranger to us either. His work Electra was previously performed at the Singapore Arts Festival in 2009 to great acclaim. A decade later, he’s back to head one of the Singapore International Festival of Arts’s opening shows.
Dionysus is, in fact, the Greek god of wine, who engages in an argument with Pentheus, the king of Thebes. Due to Pentheus’s refusal to acknowledge his divinity, Dionysus allures the souls of the women in Thebes, including Pentheus’s mother Agave. Pentheus is fascinated by this, and soon directed to the women’s carnival banquet on Mount Cithaeron.
He, of course, is later ripped to shreds by the admirers, and Agave, in her delusion, carries Pentheus’s head around thinking it belongs to a lion. She wakes up to find that her son is dead, realising that she has become a scapegoat.
What’s unique about Suzuki’s production is that it is performed in Japanese, Chinese, and several Indonesian mother languages, and it’s a pleasure to watch. While the director has collaborated with actors from many different countries in past versions, he cites working with Indonesian actors as the moment he finally felt the work truly achieve his vision of the play.
Indonesian actors comprised all the priests of Dionysus’s cult. Clad in white using traditional fibre that interlaced between opacity and translucence, they performed their roles in Batak, Javanese, and Rejang. King Pentheus (Tian Chong) responds to them in Mandarin, while Agave (Naito Chieko) carries her lines in singsong Japanese. The cacophony of languages does not tussle on stage, though neither did they sound uniform, and what emerges is a musical co-existence of lines that respond to each other. Suzuki’s famed acting technique, the Suzuki Method for Actor Training, is grounded in the use of the body and voice to cultivate flexibility and sensitivity in playing with the myriad of sensations onstage.
What we perceive is a creative dialogue of not just spoken word, but also physical sensibilities and action. Jamaluddin Latif’s wise old Cadmus contrasted brilliantly with the brash impetuousness of Pentheus, and the exoticism of Dionysus’s female believers falls right in place with the traditional roots of the priests. Their moves, a constant shuffle of sliding movements call to mind Japanese kabuki and pencak silat, an Indonesian martial art. Emerging from the shadows towards the end of the show, Chieko Nato’s Agave gave an explosive performance shifting from a gleeful, delirious devotee to a briefly lucid mother in anguish, enunciating every word with utter relish.
Visceral and devastatingly haunting, Dionysus is an exemplary work of the possibilities of modern day theatre. While it can feel impassive and too intellectual for many, there’s no denying Suzuki’s mastery of the human emotion.