The Clothesline (Michael Coghlan)


Encountering the mayhem of activity on the streets of a busy Asian city can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated, and so it was in The Streets. The Space Theatre was rearranged to accommodate an Asian street scene and as they entered ‘the street’ the audience was confronted with a wondrous scene of chaos happening in every corner. People criss-crossing the space in no apparent order, some offering you drinks, a cyclist riding past, and a general hubbub of noise. We found some cushions and took a seat on the floor.

An MC welcomed us to the simulated scene of a Jakarta street at night and after a few perfunctory words of introduction, we sat back to watch a passing parade of characters and events that had you wondering where to look, and puzzling over the meaning of it all – just as one does on a busy Asian street. There were hawkers, passive onlookers, sex workers, the lost and tormented, cyclists, police, disabled, and the homeless, political rants from the rooftops, a wedding, and a traditional street play with masks all competing for your attention.

Much of it was presented in stylised fashion using intriguing movement and dance enticing you to try and make meaning of what you were observing; to try to and make sense of what otherwise seemed random and chaotic. A live band added to the noise and atmosphere, and occasionally asserted their own flavour to a scene – sometimes with a light hearted carnival atmosphere; at other times with a menacing pulsating aural backdrop that added a sense of uncomfortable urgency.

The death of a vendor struck a political note and was presented as a consequence of the failure of the government to take their welfare into account. This was followed by a triumphant opinion in words projected onto the wall of the street declaring the freedom of the streets, where people are freer to do what they want compared to those who live the agrarian life of tilling the fields every day.

There were undoubtedly many cultural referents at play here that a Western audience may find hard to fathom, but that is kind of the point. Such Asian street scenes in real life are daunting and confusing, and difficult to comprehend.

The Streets is probably best enjoyed by letting the total scene wash over you without trying too hard to make sense of it. It is a remarkable spectacle of the bizarre and the beautiful; evidence of the capacity of humans to find their niche in a world of chaos. Marvel at the infinite variety of human endeavour that unfolds when hundreds of people are crammed into a Jakarta street. Just as it can take hours of observation of street activity in such places to get a sense of what is happening, one could see The Streets several times and pick up something new each time. And slowly you might begin to understand what it all means.

This is a thoroughly visceral experience – and quite enchanting. For the real life version, just add heat and the olfactory experience!