April 24, 2006

Vula lives on

by John Smythe

Vula is heading for the Sydney Opera House.

But first the Maidment in Auckland has invited Vula (Fijian for ‘moon’) back for a brief return season from 25 to 27 May. It played there as part of AK05 (see ‘Shock & Dismay …‘ below) and was a huge success.

Vula will then play the 400-seat Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House from 8 to 25 June Tell anyone you know in Sydney to go! (Dates & times for both seasons below.)

As you may have guessed, Vula – directed by Nina Nawalowalo with her Wellington-based Pacific Island theatre company The Conch – is a favourite show of mine. When it debuted at Bats in 2002, my NBR review concluded:

   Distinctively of women, by women, Vula is a show for anyone inclined to journey into
   Pacific Island timelessness and treat themselves to a sensuous massage of their senses
   and imagination. Some may want a more dynamic pacing but if you let it wash over
   you and submit to its ambience, you’ll be surprised how many vivid images you’ll take
   away for further savouring.

Of its next season at Te Whaea, in 2003, I wrote in part:

   The dark, reflective set, evolved by Stephen Blackburn and Vicki Cooksley from Tolis
   Papazoglou’s original design, is a shallow black-lined pool backed by a large strip curtain
   of black plastic with a changing sky-scape beyond. Together with Stephen’s highly
   selective lighting design, it serves the sophisticated illusionist skills of director Nina

   As Gareth Farr’s music hums with a mesmerising dreamscape life-force, Fiona Collins,
   Susana Lei’ataua and Taulili Mose, joined now by Kasaya Manulevu, evoke with sensuous
   grace a profound sense of how it is to be a Pacific Island woman, especially in relation to
   water. Ordinary objects like sail rafts, shells, fuschias, washing, hymn books and hats
   become iconic.

   Had it not felt so authentic and compelling, I might have been moved to point out that
   just because it’s slow, that doesn’t make it art. But any culture shock in Vula‘s initially
   languid pace is for us to deal with, just as it is when we travel to Pacific islands. Besides,
   Vula does lighten up with pace and humour, to enhance its entertainment value.

   Infusing it all is a sense of yearning, which we may interpret as a desire to never wake
   from this paradise or to escape its limits for the excitement of life beyond. To prove how
   personal each response can be, one Samoan man* of my acquaintance was especially
   impressed by the power implicit in the way these women claimed their space and their
   right to dramatise their own experience in their own way.

For this new season, newcomer Hellen Stowers and the hugely talented Tusiata Avia (poet and author of the widely acclaimed Wild Dogs Under My Skirt) join original cast members Fiona Collins and Tausili Mose.

*(That man was Dave Fane: The Naked Samoans, Niu Sila, Bro Town, Sione’s Wedding …)

Shock & dismay at AK05

In 2005, during AK05, Creative New Zealand convened a critics’ symposium in Auckland. The highlight was to be a workshop led by a Time Out reviewer from London, specifically relating to reviewing a show that was outside your cultural frame of reference. So we all gathered at Vula (were they comps or did CNZ pay for our tickets?). Next day the Time Out reviewer copped out, asserting she was unable to find any point of connection at all with Vula. This from a key person in a publication that prides itself on finding the breakthrough shows at the cutting edge amid the welter of work on offer at any one time in Greater London!

Her failure to lead the promised workshop, especially given her personal response – what an excellent premise to work from! – shocked and dismayed those of us who had dutifully gathered to sit at the feet of the Overseas Expert, at the behest of our Cultural Commissars. What was it? Cultural arrogance? A failure of professionalism? An inability of small island cultures to realise how irrelevant they are to the real world? [Your comments are welcome on this.]

Thankfully Wendy Martin, producer at the Opera House, did not have the same reaction when she saw Vula at AK05, hence her commissioning of the Sydney season. It’s my prediction that Sydneysiders will love it!

The Company

Nina Nawalowalo, formed The Conch after returning from Europe where she spent many years creating visually arresting work using a blend of magic, mask and clowning. With Vula, Nawalowalo wanted to explore a uniquely theatrical language dedicated to combining European theatre traditions with the profound depth of her Pacific Island heritage. The inspiration for Vula comes from a trip she made to Fiji in 1994 when she brought back with her the memory of women fishing, wading through waves, calling to each other in song.

Dates & Times

Maidment, 25-27 May 2006
Thurs/Fri/ Sat 8pm
Saturday matinee 2pm
Telephone bookings 09 308 2383

Sydney Opera House Playhouse, 8 to 25 June
Tuesdays at 6.30pm
Wednesday – Sunday 8pm
Saturday matinees at 2pm

‘Nawalowalo is the master of the hypnotic image.’ THE NZ HERALD, AUCKLAND

‘A searingly beautiful work speaking volumes about Pacific life.‘ CAPITAL TIMES, WELLINGTON

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