Matinya Toekang Kritik (Death of a Critic) Attending a show in Indonesian with English subtitles was always destined to be a challenge. Unlike a foreign film, the three dimensional nature of theatre requires such a heightened awareness of the stage, actors, musicians and - in some instances - the audience, that taking the time to read dialogue is nothing short of distracting. Just imagine if those subtitles were sporadically displayed, lacking in context and devoid of the show’s apparent humour.

As the opening act of Festival Nusantara at the Brisbane Powerhouse - a showcase of Indonesian performance art - Matinya Toekang Kritik (Death of a Critic) made its local debut Wednesday night. The show stars ‘the Max Gillies of Indonesia’, Butet Kartaredjasa, in a wildly physical monologue that questions the role of the critic in democratic society and attempts to position this role in Indonesian politics among centuries of criticism dating back to Socrates in Ancient Greece. Unfortunately, despite efforts for a global theme, the localised nature of the narrative required an existing knowledge of issues affecting Indonesia. In fact, without reading the synopsis prior to the show, it’s entirely likely one could remain clueless through the entire night (and beyond). Thankfully, I had read my notes. Though, judging from around half the audience reactions, I wasn’t alone in my lack of education on Indonesian politics.

Adding to the mass of confusion was the fact that, for every 30 seconds to a minute worth of dialogue, only a single line of subtitles were presented. Minutes would pass during which time those who could understand the language would be in fits of laughter, nodding approvingly, while the rest of us would be staring in bewilderment, awaiting something more than a matter-of-fact overview of what was said. Forget that the subtitles hardly strung together, the apparent punch lines were rarely - if ever - provided. Simply ‘not getting the joke’ doesn’t even begin to describe the sensation.

This isn’t to say the show didn’t have any redeeming qualities for those of us feeling as though we were on a bad acid trip. It was visually stunning, despite its relative simplicity. With a simple rocking chair and coat rack on one side and a side table and chair on the other, the use of multimedia and lighting projections washing across the stage was a treat. The aural bombardment - produced live by Indonesian performers - was also wonderfully stirring, often making the audience jump in their seats or put them in a near trance-like state. Of course, Kartaredjasa was also a sight to behold, playing the distinct characters of the critic and his assistant Baambaang.

A hilarious comedic performer, it was clear Kartaredjasa was brilliant at physical comedy, attempting to cross the language barrier with skills to rival Rowan Atkinson. Switching with ease between the restless and impatient critic pondering his past and future and the flamboyant assistant dancing gleefully around the stage, the actor’s performance went a long way towards making an awkward 75 minutes bearable. That, and the late appearance of a remote control ‘robot’.

Ultimately, however, the serious message of the critic and his socio-political repression - one I hold dear and had hoped would hit a nerve - was undermined by the terribly clumsy handling of subtitles. Stunning to look at, aurally entrancing and humorous in its own bizarre way, Matinya Toekang Kritik had all the makings of a great show. But unless you understand the language and the issues at hand, the overall point was clearly lost in translation.

Brisbane Powerhouse presents
(Death of a Critic)

Venue: Visy Theatre
Dates: Wed 8 – Thurs 9 August
Time: 8pm
Tickets: $25/$17.50 (Groups 10 or more &17.50), Season Pass (4 performances) $75/$60
Bookings: 07 3358 8600 or

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