First published on 22 Jul 2013. Updated on 3 Oct 2013.
A student is on his knees, begging the noisy crowd gathered on all sides for his life. If they vote for him to die, then the privilege of execution is given over to a competition winner, a lucky patron drawn from the audience earlier that evening. Night after night the scene is repeated, and each night the crowd is bigger, rowdier, and the contest for his life ever more grotesque.
It's a scene from the stage version of Battle Royale, the infamous blood-soaked pulp novel by Japanese author Koushun Takami. The book's already considerable fame was doubled when it was transformed by Kinji Fukasaku into a super-dark island action-horror, a film later cited by Tarantino as a key inspiration for Kill Bill.
The stage version was adapted for young Filipino theatre company Sipat Lawin by four Australian writers ‑ Sam Burns-Warr, Jordan Prosser, Georgie McAuley and David Finnigan.
It's about a class of year nine students kidnapped on a school excursion, taken to an island, given weapons and forced to kill each other by an insane former teacher. In 2012, the play, a sprawling work of promenade theatre staged in a derelict suburb of Manila -- in an abandoned school, no less -- engulfed the Philippines like one of the region's seasonal typhoons, completely changing the performing arts landscape and triggering intense national debate over depictions of violence on stage.
Now, with local company MKA, the four Australian playwrights present Kids Killing Kids, a kind of theatrical lecture, part-narrative, part-documentary, reflecting on the show's phenomenal success, the issue of violence on stage and at the joys and hazards of cross-cultural collaboration.
With such a large cast, Sipat Lawin had at first been worried there would be more performers than audience members. The first night they had 250 in the audience. The second night it was 450. On the third there were more than 900. That was when they had to start turning people away.
"It blew up in this extraordinary way," says Finnigan. "We started to get fan Tumblrs, people doing GIFs of the show, dedicated blogs and fan fiction, with a series of back stories written for the characters, some in Tagalog, some in English. Then a fan club emerged that would literally pursue the show. They would hold sleepovers at the site and they chased down us as the writers."
Soon both the ethics of the show and the implications of its popularity were being debated at the highest level. Local and international media outlets focused less on the violence depicted in the show itself and more on the enthusiasm and bloodlust of the audiences. The cast, too, were struggling with some of the audience reactions. The performer who played the student on his knees, for instance, began feeling the inevitable stresses and anxieties of one who has to beg an audience of yahooing hundreds for his life, night after night. It's a hard role to walk away from.
The play became a focal point for broader discussions about violence and Philippine society. Even the United Nations got involved.
"They [Sipat Lawin] brought in a psychologist from the University of the Philippines," explains Finnigan. "She had just been appointed to the UN's Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. She has had lots of expertise with this sort of thing, with people struggling to walk away from traumatic experiences. We said, look our actors are having real trouble with what we're doing, can you have a talk with them about debriefing."
She left half way through. The next day she wrote an open letter to the national newspaper, The Star, accusing the company of merchandising brutality, claiming that Battalia Royale was normalising the conditions for torture. This kicked off a movement to have the show shut down. On the other hand, reviewers in the same paper celebrated the company's achievement and declared it the most important theatre event of the last decade.
It's a dilemma few other Australian playwrights will ever face. On the one hand a salivating audience of thousands, on the other, a serious case for censorship that goes well beyond cultural conservatism. What was it about the Philippines that so energised the arguments?
"It wouldn't have been that way anywhere else," says Finnigan. "The Philippines and its culture is central to the way this show was received. It has been colonised multiple times, there's a civil war being fought in the south."
Presented by MKA -- Melbourne-based theatre of new writing -- Kids Killing Kids uses documentary footage, interviews and photos, as well as testimonials from members of Sipat Lawin, to tell a very personal story about four over-confident foreigners who wandered into Manila and inadvertently helped create theatre history.
Kids Killing Kids, Fringe Hub: The Warehouse, Sep 20-Oct 3
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