Features Performance Published 25 April 2014

Battalia’s Graveyard

In the second column on contemporary Australian performance, Eleanor Zeichner discusses the work of collective Too Many Weapons, revisiting their controversial collaboration with Sipat Lawin, Kids Killing Kids.
Eleanor Zeichner

“What place do four middle-class white dudes have writing a graphically violent play about school children murdering each other in a country built on multiple centuries of brutal occupation, civil war and bloodshed? Where even now, in the southern islands, children are kidnapped and forced into guerrilla armies.”

These are the  questions posed by Australian theatre ensemble Too Many Weapons, comprising David Finnigan, Jordan Prosser, Sam Burns-Warr and Georgie McAuley, in their 2013 work Kids Killing Kids. The play was an examination of their experience working with Philippino theatre ensemble Sipat Lawin to produce Battalia Royale, an immersive theatre work based loosely on the cult book (and subsequent film) , Battle Royale,  by Kōshun Takami. Rather than alleviate the discomfort and unease they felt in making this work , Kids Killing Kids retold much of the controversy surrounding that work, producing a similarly divided response among critics. For the 2014 Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, Too Many Weapons will reunite with Sipat Lawin for A Wake: Kids Killing Kids, a redux of the response work which asks the question: how can theatre makers evaluate their own practice productively, while simultaneously addressing the desires of their audience and the political implications of their work?

Battalia Royale tells the story of a class of high school students subjected to a sadistic competition by a totalitarian military regime. The students are sent to a remote island and each is given a weapon; the instruction is to kill each other until one remains standing. If more than one is alive at the end of 24 hours, the collar bombs they’ve all been fitted with will automatically detonate. In amongst the graphic violence and bloodshed, the characters navigated the intense social friction common among teenagers everywhere – confessing crushes, forming alliances and backstabbing their friends (darkly literal in this context).

The play, described as a ‘live action game’, uses an abandoned high school as the set. The audience were split into groups as they entered, and were asked to  follow different cast members throughout the buildings for variations on the sequence of events.   As the death toll rose, bodies are tallied on a scoreboard. At the halfway point, the narrator gives the opportunity for the audience to vote to stop the ‘game’ and spare the lives of the remaining characters – and mostly they don’t. Why would they, asked one reviewer, when they’ve already paid for their tickets?

Word of mouth spread quickly, and the response was immediately overwhelming. Battalia Royale became a cult sensation. “We started seeing fan art, fan fiction, dedicated blogs and fan clubs, people lining up after the show to get photographs with dead bodies of characters,” says co-writer Jordan Prosser.  By the third night of the performance over 900 people turned up to watch, and as the crowds grew, they inadvertently undermined and subverted the intentions of the devisors. Making an interactive immersive theatre work will always involve a certain relinquishing of agency to the audience, but David Finnigan describes the experience of the crowd overwhelming the performance as “extremely troubling”. The expectation for a certain kind of intimate and immersive experience was completely upheaved by the crush of people and agency relinquished to the mob.  Some audience members taunted and jeered the cast members and their fellow audience. Others decried the brutality of the depicted violence in the play, including a member of the UN’s Subcommittee for the Victims of Torture.  Indeed, the play was violent , outof fourteen performances of Battalia Royale, there were 13 hospitalisations of injured cast members during the play’s run. Further than simply deriding the depicting of  violence however, some questioned the gesture of a group of Australian writers inflicting this story onto a country whose own recent history featured state sanctioned violence and vast social inequality.

No one has interrogated this complex tension more fully than Too Many Weapons themselves. Spurred by their unease, the writers devised a theatre work which sought to unpack their own experiences of writing and producing the play. Kids Killing Kids was presented in 2013 at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, Crack Theatre Festival in Newcastle and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith.It is a documentary performance work – part lecture, part reconstruction,which narrates their experience of working in the Phillipines, and in collaboration with Sipat Lawin. It uses photos , documentary footage,  archive of tweets, blog posts , news articles about the work and a swathe of recollected anecdotes. The graphic violence of Battalia Royale is replaced by dancing and slapstick. The only blood spilt is neatly dispensed from ziplock sandwich bags. Kids Killing Kids provided  an opportunity for Two Many Weaponsto work through their bewilderment at the overwhelming local response and their exhilaration at having written a work which so evidently touched a nerve,described by Finnigan as “weird gross power imbalances” . Further to this, it gave the writers the chance to unpack the experience of seceding authorial control of the work to the actors and to the situation of presentation, and an opportunity to address the extent of their awareness of their cultural context. Finnigan notes, even the experience of developing dialogue for the actors of Sipat Lawin was coloured by social tension – in a country where knowledge of English is a marker of education, none of the writers spoke Tagalog.

Rather than navigate a way out of the moral ambiguity of Battalia Royale, or reassure their Australian audience of their pure intent, however, Kids Killing Kids only reaffirmed the complexity of the situation. As Finnigan explains, “Part of my intention was the naive hope that we could get an answer to the question ‘Did we do the right thing?’ Somewhere inside me I genuinely thought that the audiences would give us a relatively clear answer: ‘obviously, yes’ or ‘definitely not’. Instead there was more debate and disagreement.”

While although few Australian reviewers had seen Battalia Royale, and indeed relied on TMW’s own account of the play for context, many had strong views on how the writers chose to dissect and assess their experience. Describing the irreverent handling of the subject as ‘self-indulgent’, theatre reviewer for The Age, Cameron Woodhead summarised, “I’m all for artistic freedom, but with it comes responsibility, and I wish the show had a more sober and sophisticated reflection on what that responsibility might be.” Some reviewers questioned the logic of relating their experience via performance rather than a written response. Others praised the writers’ nuanced address of artistic responsibility and lauded the openness and honesty with which they admitted their initial ignorance of the political context of the Philippines .Jodi McAllister of Australian Stage wrote that Kids Killing Kids was, “not a defence of Battalia Royale, but rather a sincere exploration of what it means to make art and what happens when art assumes its own life. Does the artist have a duty to make sure their art is moral?”

Some critics of Kids Killing Kids noted the absence of Sipat Lawin’s voice, which focused primarily on the experience of the four Australian writers. Sipat Lawin’sartistic director, JK Anicoche regards this as evidence of the mutual creative respect between the two ensembles, and gives the writers credit for this decision not to speak on their behalf, “I am glad that Too Many Weapons did not assume our voice in the performance of KKK, especially in the context of Australian audiences.” Sipat Lawin developed their own response to Battalia Royale, performed in Manila in March 2014.Which will inform the production of A Wake: Kids Killing Kids, to be performed by ensemble members Sarah Salazar, JK Anicoche, Alison Segarra, Niña Bedruz and Ness Roque.

The aftermath of Battalia Royale has also caused Sipat Lawin to re-evaluate their approach to making theatre. Not wanting for subsequent projects to fall in its shadow, they concentrated on developing projects which demonstrated the variety of their engagement, from establishing a children’s theatre stream, to giving workshops on community performance practice. They also utilised the online following they developed via Battalia to further their social practice says Anicoche, which extended the conversation “from the performance to online platforms – sites for continuing discourse”. Their most recent work LOVE: This Is Not Yet a Musical, is their attempt at the world’s largest crowd-sourced play, gathering a broad variety of contributions on the topic of love. With over 300 collaborators so far, and Guinness Book of Records confirmation pending, LOVENot is being developed into a multi-genre musical in 2015. The project, Anicoche jokes, is “like a cleansing production for us after working for a year with violence-themed Battalia Royale. Faith in humanity, restored.”

The question that lingers around a work as notorious as Battalia Royale, especially when the ensembles that produced it continue to reanimate its surrounding controversy, is would it ever be possible to restage the work in another context, in Australia? Beyond questions of logistics and safety, David Finnigan doesn’t think so – much of the play had ‘particular resonance’ with the history of the Philippines. However, such a work is certainly possible. Finnigan states“Australia has its own raw spots. I don’t know how you’d press those buttons if you wanted to, but I believe they’re there.”

Kids Killing Kids isn’t necessarily that show, but it certainly dramatizes an issue which is a cause of great discomfort and anguish in the Australian public imagination. The manner in which Australia interacts with our closest Pacific neighbours is the subject of parliamentary debate, talkback chatter and dinner party conversation country-wide. When four young, white, middle-class writers make a theatre piece about their own cultural blind spots and assumptions, and perform it with evident glee and fervour, it’s bound to poke raw spots. A Wake: Kids Killing Kids is a right of reply for Sipat Lawin and an opportunity for both ensembles to collectively address their personal, historical and cultural histories. With dancing.

A Wake: Kids Killing Kids will be presented by Too Many Weapons & Sipat Lawin Ensemble at Arts House – North Melbourne Town Hall, 1-11 May 2014, as part of Next Wave. For more information about Text Camp, Next Wave’s arts writing mentorship programme, visit the Next Wave Festival website

Eleanor Zeichner is a participant in Next Wave’s Text Camp, an arts mentorship programme offering opportunities for professional development for emergent art writers and critics. The programme features seminars, individual mentorship sessions and publication opportunities. Eleanor is mentored by Exeunt’s Performance Editor, Diana Damian-Martin.

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