Founder Member, Five Arts Centre. Kuala Lumpur

In terms of scale of operations and critical attentions, you could argue that grandiose multicultural performance spectacles like Peter Brook's The Mahabharatha and Ong Keng Sen's Lear, are for alternative contemporary theatre the equivalents of Broadway and West End musical extravaganzas. The big scale aspiration of recent Euro-American and Japanese alternative theatres are also encapsulated, for example by the translation works of Robert Wilson (New York) and the transcultural energies of Ninagawa
(Tokyo). The monies and the fundings involved and the aspired global scope in the making and distribution of the above mentioned works are sings of the potent influence of late 20th century capitalism. As far as Asia is concerned, South Asia and Southeasten Asia, with the prime exception of Singapore, have so far been passive in the game of mounting large-scale multicultural race with a global reach. One of the consequences is that those regions eliminated from the multicultural race have been more consumed than have acted as consumers, and their artistic objects in the orientalist sense tend get exoticize.

Undoubtedly, The Mahabharatha project has been celebrated more widely and has accrued greater critical attention than Lear. The reasons why the Brook work has been better distributed and better known have more to do with the global political and cultural attributes and connotations than with considerations of aesthetic quality (which, in any case, are more different to gauge and resolve in a creative work). The Mahabharatha performance series stems from the West, the epicentre of the global media hegemony; it opened in 1985 at the Avignon Festival and the original French version made a European tour of Italy, Germany, Greece, Spain and Paries. The subsequent English language production was premiered in Zurich before intravelled pf Los Angeles, New York, Perth, Adelaide, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Tokyo. Curiously enough, it has never been performed in India, the original home of the epic, or in any part of Southeast Asia where the epic is still a live performance.

The most famous of the self-consciously contemporary multicultural works that is The Mahabharatha is the brainchild of a celebrated theatre practitioner whose long and illustrious career has been amply documented in both popular and serious media in written and visual forms. At different times during its relatively lengthy performance career, the Mahabharatha of Peter Brook and his company, the International Center of Theatre Reseach, has been funded by foundations (Rockefeller, Ford), corporations (AT&T, Yves Saint Laurent International), charitable organizations, TV channels( including 4, London), and a variegated array of government agencies).

The appearance of The Mahabharatha roughly coincided with the rise of strongly argued propagations for a multicultural theatre. Originating from powerfull sources of the most innovative practitioners and thinkers in Euro-American contemporary theatre community, the movement urged theatre to claim its potition as an innovator of culture and communication in an increasingly global and borderless world. "But it [ i. e. theatre] may also, if rightly used, produce conversations that grow into a multi-vocal political agenda; it may produce the strategic universalism (not, I might add, necessarily, philosophical universalism) necessary to linking those are commited to change, allowing them to move beyond the boundaries of a single insular neighbourhood. (Peters, "Intercultural Performance.. p.207). On viewing the performance, Richard Shechner, one of the pioneering advocates of a multicultural performance and performance studies, remarked that "of all the intentionally intercultural productions I've seen .. Mahabharatha .. is the finest example of something genuinely syncretic."

Syncretism was embodied, for example, in the international cast of actors from England, France, Turkey, Japan, Iran, Poland, Italy, South Africa, Senegal, Indonesia and India. This was not the first of Brook's performance that was casted like a "United Nations of Theatre". His explorations of the Persian epic, The Conference of the Birds, and the cosmic perceptions of African nothingness called The Ik, also mirrored multiple ethnicities in its casting. The Mahabharatha went even further in employing an eclectic array of musical instruments from minorities and marginal communities including the Australian aboriginal instrumentation exemplified bu the didgeridoo. Indian instrumentation was minimalized by the use of the nagaswaram and the tabla, so as to produce music, clained Brook, which "wasn't quite Indian, not non-Indian, a kind of music that has the taste of India".

That The Mahabharatha was an accomplished production rooted in Brook's well-oiled strategies of minimalism, accompanised by prodigious magical visual effects, are factors agreed upon by almost all of the parties enaged in the discourse on multiculturalism. The achievement is monunental when you consider that the performance was mostly entrancing and precipative of provocative images and actions throughout its nine-hour duration. Western audiences were enthralled by what appeared to be a smooth adaption of a "classic Indian epic". Most ofthe commentary remarked on the universality of the epic as concretizes by Brook's performance. The premise is "The Mahabharatha is Indian but it is universal". Brook's strategy was that to tell the [universal] story we had to avoid evoking India too strongly so as not to lead us away from human identification, but also we had to nevertheless tell it as a story rooted in Indian earth.

The presence and absence of Indianess in The Mahabharatha are the phenomenological sensibilities upon which much of the multicultural discourse on the Brook performance is poised. Brook and his collaborators, including the writer J. Caude Carriere, never intended to re-present an Indian text. In the preface to the play, Brook avers that "we have tried to suggest the flavour of India without pretending to be what we are not" ... "We are not presuming to present the symbolism of Hindu philosophy". In other words, "The Mahabharatha is Indian, but it is universal." The epic ends in the massive war which is visually interpreted as if the atomic bomb had descended upon the battlefield of the Bharatha Yuddha. As viewed from The Ik and other Brook performances, these cosmic envisionings emerge out of the spiritual predilections of the director.

To put it simply, the "view from India" is that "One cannot separate the culture from the text. Expunging Hidu religion from the core of text, as exemplified in the cursory treatment meted out to the vital text, The Bhagavat-Gita, and down playing if not ignoring the impact of the caste system upon the characters' behavior and actions. On asking "What is The Mahabharatha without Hindu philosophy?", the respected Indian playwright and scholar of theatre and culture. Rustam Bharucha replies that this critical absence eventuates into a "conceptual fuzziness" to the extent that "there is not framework of reference in Brook's production that provides a Hindu perspective of action in the larger cosmic context....There is not clear sense of what the characters are compelled to do by virtue of their swadharma or life-task. (Bharucha in David Williams(ed), Peter Brook and The Mahabharatha, p.232)

Other Indian critics, notably the New York-based editor of Performing Arts Journal, Gautum Dasgupta, for reasons similar to Bharucha, have assailed Brook for being orientalist and appropriating the Indian epic for his own purposes. The most comprehensive argument for the appropriative quakity of The Mahabharatha is exemplified by the theatre scholar, Una Chauduri. According to her reasoning,

Interculturalism has developed as both a problematic practice and an ideological---idealistic---project. In the former guise, it has sometimes seemed to have collude in another version of cultural imperialism in which the West helps itself to the forms and images of others without taking the fullmeasure of the cultural fabric from which these are torn. This practice (of which the recent prime example, some have argued, was Peter Brook's Mahabharatha) claims the intercultural label for itself and often seeks to elaborate a moral political model of theatre as a vital...cultural exchange. Its critics, however, discern a less than equal dimention to his foundation trope: is the barter truly egalitarian, do both sides gain equally....Is this kind of interculturalism a sophisticated disguise for another instalment of Rientlaism, or worse, of cultural rape". (Chaudhuri, 203)

The oppositional energies of the local and global revealed in many of the multicultural discourse hanker for some reconciliation. Decontextualization seems to be the frequent consequence of a performative course of action that does not give equal value to the local concerns. It would appear that you have to traverse the side and through the local cultural contexts in your journey to a global resolution.

Another area of Brook's production which has been questioned is the language(s) used by the international cast of actors using differentiated acting styles and strategies. Irrespective of the cultural-linguistic origins of the actors, only French in the first round and then only English during the world tour were used. Brook has often experimented with sounds that create meaning between and beyond langeage, as in Orghast, in which instance all the actors from differing linguistic groups were more or less neutralized. But the use of exclusive language(s) dictated perhaps by locations of the performance posed different kinds of problems. On the one hand, the presence of different accents of English from an international cast of actors would be said to be a post-colonial gesture. But the problem was that many of the actors were not adept or confident enough in English and what emerged were accents rather accentuated English that was unteligible.

One fundamental difference between The Mahabharatha and Ong Keng Sen's Lear that appeared in the latter 1990s was the linguistic strategy of the latter production. In Lear, the actors were free to use the language of their choice. Lear played by a no actor spoke in Japanese. Goneriel, a Beijing opera performer, spoke or more correctly sang in Mandarin, while Cordelia as played by a male Thai dancer, used the Thai language. Mylay was also the language frequently used by a variety of performers. This strategy was a self-conscious departure from Brook and a comment on it insofar as it suggested an erasure of linguistic imperialism in the performance. When performed in Japan, the text was made intelligibly by Japanese subtitling, but curiously enough, English was used for other locations of performance such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Jakarta.

The linguistic signposts of the Lear performance was intended to guide us to the Asian strategies and directions of the enterprize. In a sense, it can be viewed as a riposte to the Western-oriented The Mahabharatha. If Brook's text of inspiration was Indian, Ong's was one of the most "universal" of the Shakespearean texts that had been successfully Japanized in a Kurosawa film. Brook could be said to have reinvented The Mahabharatha: Ong on the other hand, deconstructed Shakespeare by collaborating with the woman Japanese playwright, Rio Kushida, and emerged with thier own version of Lear. (This was one of the reasons it was not called King Lear but simply Lear.) Ong's strategy was reminiscent of that of Mueller when he deconstructed Shakespear's Hamlet into the Hamletmachine. The bare outline of the story was left somewhat intact but the insertion or indeed the subversion of contemporary concerns motivated fundamental changes in the text. Ong was intentionally involved in the discourse on gender and identity as he cast the male Beijing singer as Gonoriel: since males do perform as women in many Asian performance genres, this decision flatterned the assumed differences between traditional and contemporary.

Theoretically at least, the performance pointed the way to the "future shocks" imbedded in the contemporaray political-economy of East Asia. The new forces, or even the young generation, as depicted by Gonoriel was represented by the male Chinese actor, whereas the established of the old guard was presented by the traditional Japanese actor. The forces of South-east Asia, represented bu the martial arts phalanx inspired by the traditional and reinvented Randai, were caught in-between the two giants, and were employed as victims, cohorts, shamans or shadows of the main protagonists. If concretized, this vision standing side by side with the gender images, could have provided us with an insightful and provocative interpretation of the New Asia, and therefore may have justified the Ong's personalized multicultural strategy of the performance.

The performance was a seemless display of magical visual sound energies and outburts that lent colour and breath-taking moments of strategies of the Asia master performers. I have never seen a performance so borrowed from Asian performance genres that yet so fused. This was a tribute to the extraordinary skills of the director in harmoniously bringing together Asian forms such as no, opera,martial arts and the gamelan. It was a formalistic achivement of the highest quality. Yet each of the representations and tropes of the traditional and contemporary performances did not operate as co-ordinates of action to push forward Ong's vision of Asia. They could not because he could not much re-direct the traditional performers to his course action, so encrusted were they in their own exclusive territories. Giving them respect and authority means that the overall structure of the vision of the performance had to be sacrificed.

In the end, who did Lear belong to. To Japan because of the paramount funding of the Japan Foundation. The disbursal of major funds to the making and touring of Lear occasioned rumblings from some Japanese directors who felt that money should have been spent on a home-grown product. You could conclude that the Jananese theatre community did not think that Lear belonged to Japan. Singapore did not claim it either: despite being Sigaporean, Ong could get only very minor funding from the Singapore National Arts Council, the biggest sponsor of local performances in Singapore. The Japan Founation certainly believed that the production belonged to then but became concerned when during the European tour in paticular the role of the director in creating Lear was thrust above and beyond funding bodies. This may be one explanation why plans for an American sojourn for Lear abandoned.

So Lear too had its own burdens to bear. Even so, Ong has continued his forays toward a multicultural performance. This is exemplified by his continued commitment to the laboratory of multicultural performance in the form of The Flying Circus that is convened every two years by Theatreworks, Sinpapore of which Ong is the Artistic Director. Although the first Flying Circus in 1996 mostly devoted to Southeast Asean performance structures and strategies, eventually led to the performance of Lear although there is no linear relationship between the events. Some of the work of the 1998 Flying Circus bringing together traditional and contemporary performance genres fron India, Myanmar and Korea, found expression in Ong's next Shakespeare project call Desdemona, also written by Rio Kushida. The seemlessness of Lear was startlingly replaced by strategies or alienation and reflexivity, that included collaboration with performance and installation artists, and the display of an actor's E-mail asking uncomfortable and probing questions about Ong's vision and methodologies. The distillation of the Indian performance genres such as kathakali and kuddiyattum into action co-ordinates showed a new development in the robust interaction between tradition and its reinvention. Most of all, it was the interface between performance and visual arts that displayed a new direction in Ong's work suggesting that he is not about to give up on his multicultural vision. But decidedly, Desdemona and his current work suggests that his emphasis on process rather than product transports us to new directions in multicultural performance.


Suigyu Library (Japanese)