Sipat Lawin’s latest work at AsiaTOPA is a dazzlingly intelligent pop culture tour that carries a dark subtext, says Robert Reid
Sipat Lawin ensemble are a site-specific experimental theatre company from the Philippines who are most famous for their 2012 live action game, Battalia Royale. That work became a massive hit with Filipino audiences, drawing thousands of people to see the adaptation of Koushun Takami’s pulp novel, in which a group of school children are pitted against each other in a fight to the death. It sparked outrage when Dr June Pagaduan raised her concerns with the show’s violence in a letter to the PhilStar Newspaper.
The controversy, driven by Dr Pagaduan, went so far as to draw comment on the floor of the United Nations (where Dr Pagaduan was a recent appointee to the Subcommittee for Victims of Torture) and a campaign to have the work shut down. (I notice the UN didn’t have a problem with The Hunger Games…)
The company will likely be followed by this sensational factoid for some years to come: but it’s worth reiterating that in the years since they formed in 2009 they have regularly made situational theatre that explores contemporary issues within the community, theatre for children and theatre lectures and workshops. Just as the any company committed to engaging with their community, they reflect and respond to the conditions around them. Their newest work, Are You Ready to Take the Law into Your Own Hands, is no exception.
‘Are You Ready to Take the Law into your Own Hands is as flashy, glitzy and energetic as it is intelligent, subversive and fun’
On its surface Are You Ready, staged at Artshouse as part of AsiaTOPA, is an action adventure fantasy in which three young women set out to rescue a kidnapped Filipino pop star. Under that brash and noisy surface, however, is a critique of the rise of right wing extremism, populist politics and the tactics of “strongman” leadership.
Around the room hang four large screens onto which are projected live feeds of the action on stage and sparkly graphics and images of the locations in which scenes take place (video art by Joyce Garcia). Raised stages place the performers in front of the screens and over our heads so, even at the back, the characters seem to tower over us, larger than life. There’s nothing menacing about them; they have an almost cartoonish quality, innocent and giggly like contestants in a beauty pageant, even when they’re waving guns in our faces.
Sixteen year old YouTube influencer, Selina (Ji-ann Lachica), who spends much of the story waving a phone on the end of a selfie stick at the action and her own face, accidentally witnesses the abduction of rising Filipino pop star Gracielle V (Blanche Buhia). Together with her 19-year-old activist sister Sanya (Claudia Enriquez), she reports the abduction to Sophia (Adrienne Vergara), a low level police corporal, in a scene that is immediately reminiscent of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
Sophia hears the report and is ordered to dismiss it by her supervisor but, after being convinced by Selina to call Gracielle V’s mobile phone (using Huawei powered hacking technology to access the number), the three of them confirm that the pop star is indeed missing and resolve to rescue her. Not merely to save the girl but because the singer is booked to appear before a rally intended to reveal a massive new infrastructure project, a public railway that will link all the islands, and without her presence Sophia fears that the project to unite the country will be a failure.
This, the main story, is framed with a running commentary by director JK Anicoche and writer David Finnigan posing as a representative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It’s difficult to imagine Finnigan as being a mouthpiece for the Australian government, particularly this one, as he’s no stranger to controversy: he was one of the writers involved with the original Battalia Royale and also wrote the right wing hate-bait work Kill Climate Deniers.
The two present this newest of Sipat’s works as part of a cultural exchange program intended to strengthen ties between the two countries. It provides much wry amusement at the expense of the smarmy marketing style of our current government, repeatedly emphasising the notion of Australia as “good neighbours” and (presumably) good trading partners. These sections serve both as parody of Australian attempts at international engagement and as expositional segues into the scenes that follow, which is helpful as the dialogue throughout is presented in a mix of English and Tagalog. Knowing beforehand what we’re about to see eases understanding for those of us in the audience whose Tagalog is, well, let’s say “limited”.
There’s not that much of a language barrier though, as the action of the play is perfectly understandable in any language. The semiotics of the action adventure genre are strong and clear and, where context might be needed for more nuanced understanding, the company speaks very directly to the audience. This is what reminds me of Fo, I think: the knowing winks, the direct address to the audience. I’d describe it as Brechtian but that would conjure up a kind of po-faced seriousness that is entirely absent here; instead there’s a cheekiness that is charming, funny and adorable.
It leans heavily on the dramaturgy of the competitive beauty pageant, a staple of Filipino culture, which not only provides a framework for introducing the actors and their characters, but also seamlessly incorporates a series of power pop ballads and dance numbers that lend an incredible energy to the entire night (the company worked with local dancers Efren Pamilacan and KIKI House of Dévine and choreography was by Jared Luna, who also played one of the kidnappers).
The mission to rescue Gracielle V takes our heroes on a tour through the underground pop culture sites of the modern Philippines. The actions includes a flip top rap battle (Sigmund Pecho), a dance off and a talent contest in which Sophia performs a memorable charismatic Christian prayer service complete with stigmata and Pentecostal intercession of the Holy Spirit. The length and action of the chase scene across the rooftops of Manila, moving around the room in front of one screen to the other, is worthy of the latest Star Wars franchise.
‘Underneath the fun is a serious commentary on the distressing turns that international politics have taken over the last 10 years’
Finnigan asks JK how the Philippines has achieved such stability in their country, because Australians are keen to emulate it, and JK answers that the Filipino government has mastered the art of storytelling. He explains that to have a good story you have to have a hero, or an anti-hero, or a good villain. This hangs in the air momentarily before we return to the story, in which our villain is revealed to be the radical Filipino Senator, Malaine Gutierrez (Bunny Cadag), whose abduction of Graychelle V is part of a wider plot to assassinate the president.
Gracielle is to be strapped with explosives and sent to the concert for the railway and, when going over to greet the president, will detonate the bomb. Gutierrez is a marvellous creation, a contradiction in political terms, caring and dedicated to her country but willing to go to extreme lengths, including abduction and assassination, to achieve her goals. A monster who cares, whose concern blind her to her monstrosity. She too is introduced to us using the beauty pageant format, telling us her backstory in a carefully constructed monologue that leads to a medley of torch songs and power ballads that, for the most part, showcase Cadag’s incredible voice, (though, if I’m being picky, Don’t Stop Believing seemed to be in the wrong key.)
Are You Ready to Take the Law into your Own Hands is as flashy, glitzy and energetic as it is intelligent, subversive and fun. It takes popular entertainment forms that shouldn’t necessarily work together, the action adventure and the glamour contest, and smashes them into each other in a delightful way that doesn’t entirely conceal how intelligent it is.
Underneath the fun is a serious commentary on the distressing turns that international politics have taken over the last 10 years and the chilling effect they’ve had on the worldwide community. It’s all so depressingly familiar; it could be talking about the US or England or Spain or Australia. In a week when our own home affairs minister, Lord Voldemort (sorry, Peter Dutton), politicised the ASIO warning against the rise of far right terrorism in Australia by insisting that far left lunatics must also be dealt with, it’s hard not to see the hard and sharp edges this raucous and racy confection is built on.
Are You Ready to Take the Law into your Own Hands, written by David Finnigan, directed by JK Anicoche, choreography by Jared Luna, Lighting and technical direction by Roman Cruz Jr, Video art by Joyce Garcia, music by J Laspuńa, videography by Brandon Relvcio, performed by Ji-ann Lachica, Claudia Enriquez, Adrienne Vergara, Bunny Cadag, Blanche Buhia, JK Anicoche, David Finnigan, Sigmund Pecho, Efren Pamilacan, Mother Kiki Dévine with daughters; Nicole Dévine, Jada Dévine, Sheena Dévine, Pepito Dévine, Crystal Dévine, July Dévine and Sharnelle Dévine. Presented by Sipat Lawin at Artshouse as part of AsiaTOPA. Until February 29. Bookings
Strobe lighting, loud sound effects, adult language, violence
Audio Described performance Friday February 28, 7.30pm