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  • Simon Howard

IN SURABAYA

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

In Surabaya reflects civilisation’s greatest fear: stagnation. It offers no respite – not even that produced by the progressive option of memory. The characters are beyond action, or even the need for it...

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IN SURABAYA is a play about language, memory and fear. In an oblique way, it pays its respects to The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin: particularly his description of our pre-human ancestors’ defeat of the beast which stalked and devoured only them. Their victory enabled us to become homo sapiens. The play examines the legacy of fear – the primal one, the fear of the beast – which stalks us to this day.

The characters in the play are like people from dreams, half-remembered and half-remembering. How they are related to one another is mostly unclear, though some of them share a past in the South China Sea – in Surabaya, which has come to represent the past itself. Where they are now is uncertain, though the geographical setting might well be Oxford or Bath. Their minds are frequently locked onto a place other than the one they are actually in. At times they seem confused about one another’s identity. They play with language: either as monologue; or a kind of verbal contest; even a drumbeat; occasionally, they make it harmonize. Usually the language works symbiotically with the music and sound effects.

These people are trapped not only in the damage of their pasts, but also by physical affliction. Elizabeth, in a condition similar, but not identical, to Alzheimer’s, hardly knows where she is or who the other characters are: she experiences the odd moment of awareness, but her main swathe of lucidity comes when she takes on the personality of a long lost figure called Bunny, recalling a beggar with a blue violin. Margaret is in a wheelchair and, quite possibly, blind. Peter seems to have been stunned by life’s brutalities into almost permanent stasis. Jack bears the tortured physical appearance of a prisoner. Sometimes Alexandra, like Peter, cannot even remember the identity of her lover.

The play is set in a fairly bare space. There is a mantelpiece with objects on it, a table and the occasional seat, including a planter’s chair, ideal for the ruminations of an exhausted or lazy person: in its recumbent position it provides a perfect substitute for the analyst’s couch. IN SURABAYA is about people sitting around the campfire, dreaming and telling stories: confusing or glorifying their origins, worrying about a loss of innocence, forgetting the present and fearing the future.

Through ritual, the campfire has become an altar. Because of societal need, the table is turned into a bed for lovemaking or a sacrificial slab. On the chairs, the spectators sit and watch or cogitate: occasionally, they perform.

We have travelled from what Robert Brustein called the Theatre of Communion, via another of his useful terms, the Theatre of Revolt, through those both of Artaud’s Cruelty and the Absurd, and ended up – or not ended up – where…?

We have reached a crisis in communication. We deal in half-remembered, half-learned things. Not only are we unsure of the answers, it is not clear whether we are asking the right questions or even if they are answerable. We have acknowledged our uncertainties but are terrified of them, so we have learned to lie. Now we are able to hold simultaneously two or more mutually exclusive beliefs. That makes us all potential writers, capable of redefining our lives as well as the truth. For some reason, though, this ability has not made us great. Instead, we are screaming at various levels of volume as we free-fall into the abyss. But this realisation, like so many other terrifying ones, has given us cause to laugh alongside it – or at least to manage a wry smile.


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