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Writers: Justin Lewis, Jacob Rajan
Director: Justin Lewis

at Opera House, Wellington
From 26 Jun 2014 to 5 Jul 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 27 Jun 2014

All living things develop, grow, progress … and die. That is a fact of life. The peasant farmer dances within the cycles of nature and struggles to maintain equilibrium in order to survive. The commercial developer exploits available resources to achieve maximum profit within the shortest possible time, although the astute operator does work towards long term sustainability.

But the forces of nature and financial markets can be ruthless and are beyond the control of any individual. It is amid these eternal quandaries tossed in the tides of fortune that tiny Karukam Island bobs, trying to have a bob both ways, with its farmers and fishermen eking out a living alongside The Resort.

Lithely embodied by Jacob Rajan, Nisha Madhan, Julia Croft and James Roque, the ruthlessly self-interested forces of nature are exemplified in the Monkeys, which roam free (albeit within their own restrictive hierarchies, we assume) and about which there are rules to keep us safe, according to our Fisherman host (Rajan). Their arrival via the auditorium proves a delightful warm-up for the fun to come with Indian Ink's Kiss the Fish, and their reappearance throughout adds a portentous tone.  

The aging rice farmer, Bapa (Rajan), needs his son to plough the last field to ensure the next crop is sufficient but buck-toothed Sidu (Roque) hates his job, is given to quoting Freddie Mercury songs ( “I'm just a poor boy and nobody loves me”… etc) and dreams of escaping, getting a band together and living the high life.

Sidu is also the solo father of Grace (a puppet made by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton, and operated by Croft) whose muteness is attributed to the departure of her globe-trotting American mother, Jasmine.

Sidu's sister Lakshimi (Madhan) seems more resigned to her lot in life until the Dutch developer Henry Kingsley (Rajan) – who is keen to acquire Bapa's water rights in order to develop Karukam Island as an ecologically sustainable tourism paradise – butters her up by declaring she has just the sort of entrepreneurial vision his enterprise needs. But Bapa won't sell: “I hate the Dutch!”  

Buck-toothed Daisy (Madhan) is full of brightness and aspires to marrying Sidu but her mother Kochima (Croft) is not at all keen on the match, thinking she can do better. Which brings us to the Resort owner, Govind (Rajan), who is rather alarmingly preoccupied with nether regions and the increasing infirmities of his internal organs.

The ubiquitous presence of the Roman Catholic Church in remote climes appears in the person of Father John (Rajan) and the attitude of New Age Amercians to exotic cultures is brilliantly satirised in the surprise return of Jasmine (Croft).

It is, of course, the commedia masks, beautifully hand-carved from wood in the Balinese style by Wayan Tanguuh that (along with the puppet) allow the highly skilled quartet of actors to bring the 11 characters and their stories to life with a delightful simplicity that belies the many hours undoubtedly spent discovering their essential qualities and quirks, abetted by director and theatrical alchemist Justin Lewis. (Just contemplating the logistics of who can be on stage with whom in any given scene, let alone how, when, and where an actor will be able to change from one to another, is mind-bending in itself.)

Designer John Verryt's festive arrangement of Indian silk curtains and array of definitive costumes enable the seamless transitions and let us in on just enough of the technology to enhance the theatrical magic of the evolving action. Cathy Knowsley's lighting unobtrusively illuminates and draws our attention in just the right way.

As ever, Dave Ward's musical compositions and on stage musicianship are an essential ingredient, and the interplay between him and the actors adds to the meta-theatrical fun.   

James Roque claims the central role of Sidu with alacrity, enhancing it with the skills he has developed as a comedian by fearlessly interacting with the audience and playing off their responses. Nisha Madhan contrasts the stolid Lakshimi with the flighty Daisy so well it's hard to credit the same actor has brought them both to life.  

Julia Croft's extraordinary physical skills are apparent from the moment her Monkey clambers down the seat backs of the Opera House's stalls without ruffling a hair of any patron. Her Kochima is as severe as her Jasmine is air-headed. Rooted as she is in perceptions and values all of us will recognise, sometimes with embarrassment, I find the round-cheeked, flouncy-haired and sublimely opinionated Jasmine the most surprising, satirically powerful and memorable character. What's more, Croft – as Jasmine – has a superb singing voice. And in a ‘some years later' coda (similar to the end of Krishnan's Dairy) she appears unmasked as the grown-up Grace, effectively bridging the exotically theatrical with the ‘real world'.

Holding it all together in a quintet of roles is the master mask-artist Jacob Rajan. His Fisherman is classically roguish and Father John is an imposing presence as he dispenses his authoritarian brand of patriarchal compassion. But it is the subtle nuances he finds in his three elderly characters that leave the most lasting impression: the lifetime of toil that burdens Bapa; the strutting arrogance of Kinsley undercut with an ineffable loneliness; the compulsive sleaze of Govind infused with a growing awareness of his own mortality. Rajan also adds spice to the mix with a naughty vaudeville song. 

While the well-wrought script by Rajan and Lewis ensures the two hours (plus interval) delivers much more than a display of performance skills, it is the performances that shine. Seasoned with mime, shadow-play and song along with the brilliant mask work, Kiss the Fish offers a treasure-trove of comedy, near tragedy, satire and pathos to enriching this timeless yet topical tale.  

The resolution is not simplistic, given “how complex the issues of development are,” as Lewis notes in the programme. In the process of research, he “saw a lot of people making a better life and a lot of people left behind.” As such it stands as a mature meditation on a very real world.

Indian Ink plans to take Kiss the Fish to the USA (along with The Guru of Chai). As a New Zealand-made play set on a fictional island that blends elements of south-west India with Malaysia and uses contemporary Balinese masks in the Italian commedia dell'arte tradition, Kiss the Fish is exquisite ‘fusion theatre' that should please the palate of any theatre-goer anywhere.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Mark Houlahan
 Nik Smythe
 Sharu Delilkan (TheatreScenes - the Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
 Simon Wilson (Metro Arts);
 Gail Tresidder
 Karen Beaumont
 David Stevens
 Emily Mowbray-Marks
 Bronwyn Elsmore
 Lindsay Clark
 Lena Fransham