The soldier unloaded his pack, relieving the burden from his back literally and figuratively. Known as Yusuf, the soldier headed home on leave, keen to see his mother and fiance. A skilled violinist, he took out his instrument to play a merry tune, not realizing the stark outcome of his actions.
The scene starts off “L’Histoire du Soldat” or “The Soldier’s Tale,” an Indonesian language adaptation of early 20th century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’ eponymous work. Performed at the Salihara cultural center in South Jakarta last week, the adaptation by playwright Goenawan Mohamad and choreographer Gerard Mosterd stayed true to the Faustian theme of facing the Devil.
As with previous versions of “L’Histoire du Soldat,” the Devil, voiced by veteran actor Rudy Wowor who also voiced Yusuf and narrated the play, lost no time in tempting the play’s protagonist. He started by asking the soldier to sell his fiddle, which Yusuf refused. He then made Yusuf an offer he knew the young man couldn’t refuse: a book with the ability to give its owners enormous wealth and foretell the future. The Devil also offered to teach Yusuf his powers in three days in return for violin lessons.
The soldier agreed and spent the next three days exchanging skills and knowledge with the Devil. When it was time to part ways, Yusuf finally made his way home — only to discover that the three days he had given the Devil were equivalent to three years to the rest of the world. And to his dismay, his fiancee had moved on to raise a family with another man.
Yusuf’s only consolation was the book, which he used to gain great wealth. He soon realized, however, that the riches he has collected still left him unhappy, while the poor seemed more than satisfied leading their simple lives. Neither did the former soldier gain much satisfaction when the Devil returned to give Yusuf back his fiddle. Yet when Yusuf rested the instrument upon his shoulder, he realized he had lost the ability to play. When Yusuf made that fateful deal with the Devil, he had, in essence, also given up his soul.
Desolate, Yusuf resumed his wanderings and rescued a princess in distress, all the while with the Devil not far behind.
Goenawan managed to make “L’Histoire du Soldat” resonate to modern Indonesian audiences by depicting Yusuf as a wayang figure and the Devil as a bottle. Unlike previous versions of the play, which feature Yusuf (or Joseph in his previous incarnations), the Devil and the rescued princess at center stage, Ramuz called for the main characters to remain on the periphery, giving the main stage to dancers representing demons.
While the Devil takes on the classic role of tempter, the play isn’t above showing him subject to the same urges or flaws he inspires, like doubt and desperation, to lead humans astray.
Choreographer Mosterd used contemporary and Javanese dance styles to characterize the demons; the dancers’ grotesque facial expressions resemble gargoyles, while their twisted moves remind one of contortions seen in movies like “Devil Inside” or “The Exorcist.”
Satirical with dark, comedic twists, like men dressed in ballet tutus or women donning fake mustaches, it didn’t take long for the dancers to disturb and unsettle both viewers and performers alike.
Dancer Siko Setyanto, who played one of the demons, said he was happy to play an evil character.
“Playing an antagonistic role has long been one of my goals, and doing so gave me an exhilarating, liberating sense of release,” he said. “[‘L’Histoire du Soldat’] is also a universal story, as it shows that we’re never free of temptation. Humans are incapable of being content with what they have, and are always keen for more.”
Rudy, who’s best known for his roles as Dutch colonial baddies in historical Indonesian movies like “Tjoet Nja’ Dhien,” “Soerabaia ’45”and the 2009 feature “Merah Putih” (“Red and White”), echoed Siko’s premise through his subtly satirical delivery, which derides greed and a lack of gratitude for the blessings in life.
“One element that ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’ highlights is corruption. As a universal problem, corruption ensures that everyone has a price tag,” Rudy said, adding that temptation is inescapable as long as we’re subject to the pressures of our jobs and our constant need to improve our financial circumstances.
“Our unwillingness to change our lifestyles, though its often above our financial means, also compounds our problems and lead us to temptations like corruption,” he said.
Rudy also voiced his concern that Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to this problem.
“Many Indonesians are raised to act for rewards and other incentives, instead of doing so selflessly on behalf of others. They are also inured to pursue gain and power, as reflected best in the country’s elections,” he said.
Whether one agrees with Rudy is very much a matter of choice. What is certain is that “L’Histoire du Soldat” is a worthy indictment of our lives and our choices.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 15, 2014