The epic and farcical ostensibly sit on opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum, yet in Hiroshi Koike’s SOUL of Odyssey, staged recently in Kuala Lumpur, they seem to be two sides of the same damning coin. After all, if both trade in broad strokes, tropey characters and heightened drama, the real point of differentiation between our epics and our farces might be that the former insist on a heightened reverence, whereas the latter thrive on the exact opposite: irreverence.
In taking on Homer’s Odyssey, the play slips back and forth between reverence and irreverence with admirable ease; here, the tale of Odysseus journeying back home to his wife and son after the brutal Trojan war veers wildly from melancholic interludes to bawdy humour. While sometimes the effect is a sort of theatrical whiplash, once one settles into the controlled chaos, the tonal shifts begin feeling not just deliberate, but pointed.
Part of the show’s ability to do this lies in the dizzying array of approaches it brings together: actors and dancers are used interchangeably, contemporary movements exist alongside Butoh, Carnatic music wends its way around rap and Noh vocalisations alike.
Adding to all this are the visual projections that range from the grand to the uncomfortably intimate. In one scene, the actors haul on rope in front of visuals of a churning sea, evoking their exhausting ship journey. In another, we get extreme close-ups as they greedily gobble down a lavish meal.
Occasionally, the show gets a little too enamoured with its multimedia, and scenes go on just a tad longer than they need to. But overall, it is an effective swirl of storytelling techniques that keeps calling into question, what sort of story we’re watching.
SOUL of Odyssey’s ability to code-switch, as it were, also lies in its fundamental resistance to committing to one language or mode of expression. As part of Koike’s larger Bird of Fire project, which foregrounds cross-cultural, transnational work, this performance is a co-production with the KL Shakespeare Players.
It features a cast of Malaysian and Japanese performers speaking in Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, English, and Japanese (informed by, it seems, the languages the performers themselves are most comfortable with). This not only brings a lovely organic quality to the speech, it strips the story of its “foreignness” and turns it into something that feels altogether more local and familiar.
The multiple modes of expression also deliberately break down the notion of a singular narrative, and instead repeatedly ask, “Who is telling this story?”
Take, for instance, composer Santosh Logandran, sitting in full view, a one-man band who is (impressively!) everything from soundscape to Greek chorus to the characters’ singing voices.
Or the two jester-like figures (played by Lim Soon Heng and Seng Soo Ming) who frequently break the fourth wall to poke fun at the goings-on.
Or the scene where Odysseus and his men encounter the cyclops Polyphemus, and we view it almost entirely through the feed of a handheld camera one of the characters shoves in the monster’s face.
In contrast, Odysseus himself is practically voiceless, his desires and despair brought exquisitely to life by Lee Swee Keong’s Butoh-inspired movements and expressions. Again and again, the question arises: who is telling this story?
But also, who isn’t? For what becomes increasingly apparent is that this is a story of men, told by men. The women – whether Odysseus’ wife Penelope or sorceress Circe – are what the men fight for, or over, or to get home to, never the ones at the centre of the narrative. (Telling too, that the war Odysseus is returning from, was itself sparked by rivalry over Helen of Troy.)
The play underscores this lack by almost caricaturising its women: Penelope is virtuous and grieving, Circe is the stereotypical temptress. The decision to cast the same performer, Nurul Sofia, to play both female characters then, feels like sly commentary on how narrow in scope most women in these tales are.
So whether the elegiac battles or the gluttonous brawls, in SOUL of Odyssey it is, over and over, the men who are drawn to violence; who, despite knowing full well the pointlessness of war, continue to wage it.
And so in the end, Odysseus does return home to Ithaca, but the violence he had grown weary of can’t help but trail him – amidst searing projections of modern warfare, he loses everyone who matters to him. Is this what epics are about? Or is it time we saw them for the farces they really are?
Cover image by Goh Bong Hiang.