Candi Bentar

(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


Written by Jill Shearer

Amateur production

Playwright Jill Shearer is full of surprises. I’d never have picked her as a surfy chick, but in her latest play she gets the surf culture down to a T. (“Sometimes I have to get by with a little help from my friends,” she confessed afterwards.)

This uncanny ability to get inside a culture is what makes her an enduring playwright, as well as one of Australia’s best, because she can understand the mind-set of the Great Aussie Loser, the Ugly Tourist, the Angry Terrorist and the Passive Sufferer better than any newspaper journalist or film maker. Time and again, through her twenty plays, she has tackled new themes that are topical but strictly focussed, achieving that difficult task of approaching the universal truth through the individual experience, so that in this instance we see the horrors of the Bali bombing not through the lens of a camera, or even up close, but as the natural culmination of a failure of relationships on a personal as well as an ethnic and religious scale.

Tourists go to Bali for many reasons, not all of them for illicit drugs and forbidden sex. They go to ride the waves, get cheap beach massages for a tenth of the price they’d pay at home, work on their suntans, play all day and night and, in some cases, to try to understand rather than exploit the local culture.

Kate and Steve (school principal and out-of-work salesman) are there at Kate’s father’s insistence and expense to patch up their failing marriage. Steve (played by Lucas Hickey as if he had come straight from the set of Home and Away), instead of immediately bedding his gorgeous wife Kate (Jacki Mison with perhaps a touch too much of the catwalk about her), goes to the beach to do what Aussie boys do, and falls in with a seemingly gentle Javanese man (Peter Kattach gets this complex character very well) who wants to learn to surf. Caveat Emptor! (Buyer beware!) we immediately think – or do we? Are we as ready to believe in his cross-cultural innocence as Steve is? Is there a sub-text to his friendly demeanour?

You have to know something about the difference between Bali and Java to understand this man Ketut, and here Jill Shearer has done her homework well, for it’s only when his retiring Balinese girlfriend Made (a quiet and powerful performance from Indra Ryan here) drops a hint about his background that we begin to understand his flashes of anger, his hot temper and his unwillingness to listen and, of course, the terror he inevitably unleashes.

This is a play about irreconcilable differences, and the title itself is a hidden warning, for Candi Bentar is a kind of split gate, of a type found only in Bali. On every level the play subtly uses this metaphor, mostly unspoken and often ironically, and it’s only when we reach the end that we recognise its ultimate truth. For the world ends here with both a bang and and, for the survivors, with a whimper, and there are no happy endings for anyone.

Sandra Hines has given this play everything that she and the Arts Theatre have to offer, and it’s far more than just the valiant effort that many of their productions are. More natural cadences and better projection of the voices would have helped the text, I think, which was often drowned by the overwhelming noise of the soundscape, and I wasn’t the only one in the audience to agree with the characters when they told the incessant gamelan music to shut the f… up, but when the sound operator learns to get the balance right, the text will be allowed to speak in its own right. .

It’s a good production but, with all due respect to the Arts Theatre, a new Australian play as good as this one, and a playwright as distinguished as Shearer, deserves a professional production, and I can’t think why La Boite, for example, which prides itself on encouraging new Australian drama, let it go. I hope it has a life beyond the amateur stage, but until that time, you won’t be disappointed by this production, and it’s a chance to see an Australian play which is neither formulaic nor blatantly exploits the zeitgeist. Jill Shearer is one of Brisbane’s living treasures, and any of her plays is a treat, but for my money, Candi Bentar is one of her very best.

Directed by Sandra Hines

Designer Una Hollingworth

Playing until 3 February 2007, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm

Duration : 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 26th January 2007)