The ship struggled against insurmountable odds, as its captain, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, faced high seas and the wrath of the sea god Poseidon in his quest to reach home a decade after the Trojan War. Danger lurks at every turn, from the seductive yet dangerous tune of the Sirens to the unpredictable currents and rocks that make up the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. The flashing of Poseidon’s trident amid a clap of thunder and lightning gave a tangible sign of his challenges, but Odysseus’ woes didn’t end with his return, as he faced a multitude of enemies keen to claim his kingdom, his wife Penelope, and his throne.
This retelling of Homer’s timeless classic “The Odyssey” on the stage managed to capture its audience’s imagination, just as its previous adaptations did in ancient and modern theaters and films alike. But what sets this adaptation apart is that the action, characters and settings, are done on paper. Performed by the British Paper Cinema troupe, the production deftly portrays Odysseus — literally and figuratively — before a spellbound audience at the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta.
The group literally unfolded the tale before their viewer’s eyes, as puppeteer and artistic director Nicholas Rawlings started off the story by drawing the character and his world. The Kent Institute of Art and Design managed to capture Odysseus’ anxiety, loneliness and desperation, as well as the steely determination that brought him home after a decade of wandering and adventure.
“The inspiration [for Paper Cinema] came from the puppet shows that I and the rest of the cast used to see when we were growing up. However, the Odyssey derives much of its power from a tradition of non-narrative tales, as well as big, over the top fight scenes that we saw in comics like Asterix,” said Rawlings, who founded the Paper Cinema in 2004 along with puppeteer Imogen Charleston and musician Christopher Reed.
“We also stretched the boundaries of our paper props. This took a bit of effort, because the medium isn’t as flexible as the more plastic arts.”
The Paper Cinema surprisingly got its point across, as it used the paper props to illustrate waves, meandering roads and the clash of weapons.
“The use of the paper props are indispensable for the Picture Cinema. Imogen and I have up to 400 props each, which we have to use in accordance with the plot lines,” said Rawlings. “We also use lighting, special effects and music to convey moods and to drive the story along.”
Reed agreed with Rawlings: “We used a variety of music for the production, including a combination of jazz, bluegrass and other genres. The music is a good way [to make the Odyssey] relatable to Indonesian audiences. And besides we don’t have anyone who can play Ancient Greek music.”
The display of texts and the melodramatic music by musical saw player and violinist Katherine Mann, as well as the slightly moody piano solos of pianist Hazel Mills gave the production the look and feel of a silent movie.
Elements that stood out include Mill’s amplified shuffling of feet to convey Odysseus’ laborious trudging through the sand, and Mann’s vibrating of the saw to portray thunderclaps and lightning.
The group’s use of symbolism can only be described as shrewd. Odysseus’ suitors were portrayed as wolves to reflect their shameless, predatory and rapacious nature, while the hovering figure of an owl, an emblem of the Greek goddess Athena, symbolizes her constant guard over Odysseus. But most of all, Paper Cinema’s take on “Odyssey’s” main characters also reflect the story’s power and its relevance for contemporary audiences.
“In the ‘Odyssey’ we analyzed the symbiotic relationship between Odysseus and his son Telemachus. While the former is on a journey home to find his roots, Telemachus is on a journey to find himself, as is typical of many teenagers,” said Rawlings. “It’s also in line with the themes we want to bring up, of family, loyalty and being a good host.”
Rawlings added that the character of Telemachus is geared to the evening’s more youthful audience, as it entailed the use of modern day vehicles. Some of the props depicted him riding a bus as he goes in search of his father, as well as hitching rides on trucks.
Rawlings explained that Paper Cinema is working on creating productions of their own tales, instead of adaptations like the Odyssey or Edgar Allan Poe’s “The King of Pests.” He added that these original performances will be complete and ready to take the stage in a few years from now. While the look and plot of their productions have yet to be seen, Paper Cinema’s deft touch and instinct for putting on quite a spectacle indicate they are worth looking forward to.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on March 13, 2014