Created in a disused colonial hotel on a remote island in Timor-Leste, Doku Rai (You, Dead Man, I Don’t Believe You) tells the story of a man who is killed but cannot die. The piece was conceived on the set of Robert Connolly’s 2008 film Balibo, where Doku Rai’s director Thomas M Wright first met Timorese actor Osme Gonsalves. The two then became friends and came up with the idea of a theatre collaboration between the two countries.
Part theatre and part rock concert – the work is a coproduction between anarchic Melbourne-based theatre group Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, and East Timorese rock gods Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy – Doku Rai marks the worlds’ first international theatre production created in Timor-Leste. The production has performed to sell out houses in Darwin, Adelaide and Melbourne.
The creation of the work was an intense process. The group of artists lived and worked together for two months. “It was all the time work … we had two days off that you would actually call a ‘day off’ the whole time we were living [there],” says Thomas Henning, director of Black Lung Theatre. Henning was involved in the original production of the work and is also codirecting the production’s remount for the Sydney season alongside Melchior Dias Fernandes.
Henning describes these two months as a bizarre circumstance to create work within. They were living in an abandoned Portuguese-style colonial hotel built by the Indonesians on a remote island in Timor-Leste called Atauro, which is situated just off the coast of Dili. The island’s only regular access route was by boat once a week; the boat travels across an extremely deep channel separating Atauro from Dili. Their first trip across this channel was on a fishing boat laden with chairs, and involved stopping and starting the motor to hop from wave to wave in a journey that took about three hours. And life on Artauro had other difficulties – broken water pumps on the island made access to water to wash with extremely difficult.
There was also the issue of negotiating communication between a cast who spoke many different languages as well as having different artistic practices. The Timorese collaborators had a much stronger background in music and installation, where as the Melbournians were firmly planted in the world of theatre. “The styles present onstage are completely different, completely bizarre in their combination. [We have] a very particular way of harmonising … but to find such harmony comes with many jarred notes, what are actually often a great source of content, pathos and drama,” says Henning. “We benefit from each others’ differences greatly I think.” As a result, Doku Rai interweaves myth, personal stories, music, film, four languages and ritual to create a completely new theatrical language through which to explore mortality, fragility and chaos.
And despite the production being ‘political’, Henning believes that the work dodges being aligned with the word in a strictly linear way. “It’s unwittingly politically,” he says. “By the nature of the production itself it is political because the collaboration in its own right is a political action. But we consciously avoided making anything that is of a very particular kind of politic, and we buried that idea in the nature of the story… by refusing to present work in such a way we would be capable of presenting work that is of a stranger question that questions those politics in their very root.”
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