The Jakarta Post
Bathed in red: 'Panembahan Reso' was first performed in August 1986, the first public work by WS Rendra after he was banned from making any public appearances until that year since his 1979 arrest. (JP/Dionnasius Aditya )
The late literary legend WS Rendra’s play Panembahan Reso might be a scathing criticism of the New Order regime, but its latest incarnation can be whatever you make of it.
Panembahan Reso began its life in 1975, but it was in October 1985 that Rendra started writing the script, conducting a dramatic reading with members of his theater troupe Bengkel Teater whenever he finished writing a scene.
Actress and director Ken Zuraida, Rendra’s widow, recalled that one time after many weeks of reading, he suddenly tore up the script and burned it. The pair then went to Bandung, West Java so that Rendra could write a new script, which was delivered scene-by-scene to his workshop in Depok.
Scheming: The title character Panji Reso (Whani Darmawan) is a palace warrior with ambitions of nobility and royalty. (JP/Dionnasius Aditya )
In 1986, the script was finished and Panembahan Reso finally received its moment on stage from Aug. 26 to 27 that year at Istora Senayan in Jakarta.
More than three decades later, the play made its return once more, social criticism and all.
Staged at Ciputra Artpreneur, South Jakarta on Jan. 25, the 2020 incarnation of Panembahan Reso is a relatively abridged version of the original. While the 1986 production was approximately six hours long, it was condensed to around three hours this time around.
The tale is one of palace intrigue, where members of the royal court each have their own hidden agenda that they will pursue at any cost without regard. The Old King (Gigok Anurogo) deals with an insurgency by assigning the task at hand to one of his sons, who will soon succeed him to the throne.
A game of thrones: 'Panembahan Reso' deals with succession of power, a taboo topic in the New Order era. (JP/Dionnasius Aditya )
But it is precisely the throne that caused much of the intrigue in the first place: the Old King’s three concubines – Queen Kenari (Sruti Respati), Queen Padmi (Maryam Supraba) and Queen Dara (Sha Ine Febriyanti) – each want their offspring to become the future king.
Enter the central character of the story: a palace warrior by the name of Panji Reso (Whani Darmawan). Though a commoner, Panji Reso soon plays the palace politics well enough to get himself ordained to nobility.
Sure enough, his scheming finally lands him the title of Panembahan Reso and Queen Dara’s hand in marriage, achieved by badgering the Young King into granting him concessions.
Soon, Panembahan Reso is king, but his conscience finally catches up to him.
While Panembahan Reso is a story of royal succession, it was envisioned by Rendra as a fervent criticism of the New Order regime, which put him behind bars for six months in 1979 and banned him from making any public performance until 1986.
Intimacy: The 2019 production, at three hours, is an abridged version of the original, which was approximately six hours in length. (JP/Dionnasius Aditya )
The August 1986 production itself was the first project Rendra undertook as his first public appearance, directing and starring in what was a barely veiled criticism of the regime while discussing the issue through the taboo subject of power succession.
These sentiments were at times very evident in the play, which the audience would immediately notice through the characters’ lines. Even in the things left unsaid, Panembahan Reso was a cautionary tale of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the message is as clear as day if you pay attention to each scene.
Every cast member was on top form during the media preview, and while audio issues cropped up at some points, their voices were clear enough for the back row that the microphone felt like it was unnecessary.
Saturday’s production, held by the Borobudur Writers and Cultural Festival Society (BWCF Society) and the Ken Zuraida Project, is something that Rendra would certainly approve. No characters or plot points were removed in the condensing process, and theatergoers were assured that the storyline stayed faithful to the original.
“The script that tells a story of succession will always be contextual and universal, as it can happen everywhere and at any time,” says Ken.
Of course, that a play loaded with criticism of the New Order is staged in today’s political climate can raise a few eyebrows on its own, but that is best left to political commentators of the broadcast and WhatsApp kind.
Panembahan Reso is an intriguing play not for its script alone, but in how it provides a glimpse of Indonesia in its most turbulent times. After all, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
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