Performance reviews: A Bucket of Beetles and White Gold, Sydney Festival

Sydney Festival celebrates the beauty of Southeast Asian performing arts with two socially impactful organisations.
‘A Bucket of Beetles’ at Sydney Festival 2024. Photo: Rendha Rais & Rangga Yudhistira. Performers dressed in earth-coloured clothing holding a small puppet in the middle.

A Bucket of Beetles

When childhood imagination meets the ingenuity of alluring puppetry, endearing stories like A Bucket of Beetles come alive with colour and artistry.

This Papermoon Puppet Theatre production told the charming tale of a little boy named Wehea who meets a magical, flying rhinoceros beetle in a wondrous rainforest. The story was devised by director Maria Tri Sulistyani’s talented son Lunang Pramusesa at age four; his drawings also inspired the puppets.

Straight from Indonesia’s buzzing arts city of Yogyakarta, the puppets and masks were beautifully designed and, with their enigmatic expressions and adorable moon-like heads, the puppets were also aesthetically pleasing to watch.

The show adopted innovative Japanese techniques such as multiple people operating a puppet (bunraku) and performers controlling the puppets with their hands and feet while on a wheeled chair (kuruma ningyo). This provided more control, as the puppets’ intricate gestures made them feel almost sentient and their fluid movements across the stage seemingly natural.

The integration of shadow puppetry, reminiscent of Indonesian wayang also added to the appeal, helping transport the audience into a world of curiosity and inquisitiveness while also giving audiences a taste of Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage.

While techniques are important, the incredible puppeteers themselves are masters at conveying the story without dialogue – their skill and passion invigorating the puppets. Their lively interactions, taking the puppets off the stage and utilising the surrounding walls as a canvas, helped to better immerse the audience.

The lighting, sound and stage designers should also be applauded, together contributing to the production’s overall artistic quality and ambience.

However, the show was not for everyone and could be confusingly illogical at times, since it targeted children with its simple and friendly themes. Nonetheless, amid numerous forest fires and deforestations worldwide, A Bucket of Beetles did communicate an increasingly important message of caring for our environment, with rainforests like Wehea’s namesake constantly being at risk.

It was easy to see how A Bucket of Beetles conjured up so many smiles and why so many have fallen in love with the charming tale.


A Bucket of Beetles
Story by Lunang Pramusesa, Maria Tri Sulistyani
Artistic directors: Maria Tri Sulistyani, Iwan Effendi
Puppet engineer: Anton Fajri
Puppet design Anton Fajri, Iwan Effendi, M Alhaq, Lunang Pramusesa
Puppeteers, puppets and set builders: Pambo Priyojati, Beni Sanjaya, M. Alhaq, Hardiansyah Yoga, Lunang Pramusesa
Lighting designer: Anton Fajri
Music composer: Yennu Ariendra and Ari Wulu
Music director and operator: Iwan Effendi
Costume maker: Retino Intiani

A Bucket of Beetles was performed at Seymour Centre from 9-13 January as part of Sydney Festival 2024.

White Gold

’White Gold’ performing as part of Sydney Festival 2024. Photo: Ranuth Yun. Circus performers gather in a circle while at the centre, two performers are supporting each other while the top person does a handstand.
’White Gold’ performing as part of Sydney Festival 2024. Photo: Ranuth Yun.

Drawing upon the richness of Cambodian culture and Buddhist traditions, White Gold is a circus performance that harmoniously blends various artistic disciplines with visually stunning storytelling.

The piece is presented by Phare Circus, an organisation founded by refugees that has helped lift many young Cambodians out of poverty via the arts. White Gold is also a wonderful reflection of efforts to restore traditional Cambodian arts, such as the 1200-year-old circus tradition, abolished under the Khmer Rouge.

All traditional circus elements are present and executed impeccably, with a distinctively Cambodian flair elevating the performance. Inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, the piece is somewhat an allegory of the Buddha’s search for enlightenment, wherein he found the importance of moderation, a teaching that White Gold embodies.

Particularly memorable is the opening act in which a man creates a beautiful Buddhist mandala out of rice – a food symbolising community, wealth and nourishment integral to Cambodian lives. When the man’s son destroys the mandala, audiences are thrust into a world of imbalance and chaos outside the village, where rice is a commercial commodity fuelling competition and greed.

The production matches its multilayered and meaningful story by successfully presenting the son’s spiritual journey through extremely engaging, yet mesmerising, choreography and music.

The circus performers are brilliant as they complete incredibly difficult-looking feats with precision and grace. Some impressive acts that thrilled the audience throughout, when this reviewer attended, included acrobatics, contortion, juggling, diabolo, trapeze, Russian bar, rola bola and teeterboard. Not only are the performers technically impressive, but they are also exceptionally charismatic and humorous as they invite bouts of laughter with their endearingly clownish acting.

Read: Performance review: Big Name, No Blankets, Sydney Festival

The three talented musicians, whose music would be an enchanting performance by itself, craft an ethereal atmosphere, effortlessly switching between various traditional Cambodian instruments. The pleasant sounds of Khmer singing, khim, roneat (xylophone), khloy (flute) and percussion meld beautifully together and are also perfectly timed to help immerse the audience further into the story’s world.

The addition of elegant Cambodian dance with its alluringly intricate gestures and footwork, as well as live painting that illustrates the journey, also add to the rich tapestry.

These various performance elements make White Gold a sensory delight and together culminate in a grand finale that makes the performance even more satisfying.

Sydney Festival audiences have truly been fortunate to have been gifted the opportunity to witness such a culturally enriching and superb performance.


White Gold
Stage director: Bonthoeun Houn
Assistant stage directors: Julien Clement, Agathe Olivier, Molly Saude
Artists/performers: Sophea Chea, Sopheak Houn, Vanny Chhoerm, Viban Kong, Tida Kong, Kakada Kim, Sreynuth Oeurn
Musicians Nong Chantha, Dieb Danit, Ratha Pov
Painter: Sereysokun Heng
Original soundtrack: Chantha Norng
Costume designer: Dari Tha
Set designer: Chhaiya Oum

White Gold is performing at Seymour Centre from 9-21 January as part of Sydney Fesival 2024; tickets.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Leo Chau is a freelance writer living in Western Sydney on unceded Dharug land. He currently studies journalism at UTS, hoping to contribute to promoting diverse voices in the arts and media. His topic interests are varied, some of which include multiculturalism, politics, culture, sociology and history.