1 Clyde Quay Wharf, Wellington

21/02/2017 - 25/02/2017

NZ Fringe Festival 2017 [reviewing supported by WCC]

Production Details

Skuxologist James Nokise – Thespian, Cultural Commentator, Guest Lecturer, occasional Joke teller – has composed a Poem of Captain Cook’s voyage through the Pacific Region. He will humbly navigate the many Pacific cultures, as Cook himself did, as he looks at the spread of the Enlightenment … to people who knew how to sail without compasses and live in ecologically sound structures.

From the mind behind Rukahu (Best Theatre Solo Fringe 2015), We Built This City (with Adam Page), and also the guy who does Samuel L Jackson’s Puppet in Puppet Fiction – comes a 45 minute poem on everyone’s favourite subject; Pacific Imperialism.

Faovale Imperium features original Poetry by Nokise, and guest works by several Pacific Artists…. performed also by Nokise. It’s like the Disney film Moana… told by one guy, who doesn’t look like The Rock, and doesn’t appropriate Pacific Culture for environmentally unfriendly merchandise.

1 Clyde Quay Wharf
21-25 Feb 2017
BOOKINGS: fringe.co.nz

Theatre , Spoken word , Performance Poetry ,

1 hr

Moments of seriously great poetry

Review by Michael Trigg 22nd Feb 2017

“This guy in the front row’s just realised that it’s just a straight-up poetry show! Sorry man! No comedy tonight!”

So says writer/performer James Nokise, responding to a young man sitting on a cushion in the front row of the concrete bunker that is the performance space at 1 Clyde Quay Wharf. Even though I’m lucky enough to have secured a chair, I empathise with the poor guy who’s trying to settle in; it’s hot and crowded in here, a difficult site for a poetry reading – yet there’s something very 2017 about watching a Samoan-Welsh poet present his works in military fatigues, and from a location that could double as a nuclear bunker.

Although Nokise is right – Faovale Imperium is a straight-up poetry show – there’s comedy to be had tonight, intentional or otherwise.

The show is a development season, a definite work-in-progress – Nokise acknowledges this from the get-go. And that’s where we get much of the comedy – whether it be gently laughing at Nokise’s under-preparedness, or at his ad-libbed one-liners that fill the time while he searches for the next poem (variously located in books, tablets, and laptops).

One highlight is Nokise’s description of himself as the “Polynesian Bertolt Brecht,” as his partner Anya Tate-Manning makes an unscheduled appearance to help find a missing poem: ‘We Need to Talk about “Moana”.’ 

Originally billed as a 45-minute poem on Pacific Imperialism (primarily Captain Cook’s voyage through the Pacific), the structure of the show is actually a combination of original poetry by Nokise and guest works by several Pasifika Artists (all women).

We hear Nokise before we see him, as he meanders toward the stage area from across the other side of the dimly lit bunker, reading from Beaglehole’s The Life of Captain James Cook. With its effusive praise of this ‘great’ man (described later as “discoverer of lands that had already been discovered,”) we’re set up to view Cook as the villain of the show. (“Who has two thumbs and can’t navigate by sky? This guy!”)

However, later poems (mostly those written by Nokise) bring ambiguity and maybe even confusion to this idea. Poems that describe Cook’s hearing of the deaths of his children at home in England invoke empathy towards Cook – and it seems to me that Nokise is highlighting the ease with which we can point the finger and cast Cook is the 2-D villainous coloniser who brought nothing more than scurvy and a determination to plant flags. Cook’s voice talks about duty, about “finding England in the South Pacific,” and of “Glory to England”. Again, I think about how fitting this sort of nationalist rhetoric is from the concrete bunker setting in 2017.

It’s great that Nokise uses poems from modern Pasifika women to respond to Nokise’s Cook – though some work much better than others. Much of this comes down to the under-preparedness of the show, and occasionally mumbled enunciation from Nokise. Poems like one by Maraea Rakuraku – a direct conversation to Captain Cook – come across strongly and leave an impression. Others feel somewhat shoe-horned in but with more time to look at the shape of the piece, I think that Nokise can find stronger connections between the individual works, and find a more significant place for each guest poem.

Faovale Imperium covers a multitude of topics – all stemming from the imperialism of the European colonisers – including rising sea levels, Pasifika representation in media (Moana), poaching of rugby players, dehumanisation of the ‘native’, nuclear testing and destruction of language. These are all big, important ideas – and all have a place in the narrative.

However, again, some of these ideas seem fleeting – making one appearance where a potential gag can be worked in, but not explored (so to speak) further. Although it’s pretty evident to most rational people, it would be great to see a solid connection between the imperialism of the 19th century and the rising oceans of the 21st. How does the ongoing imperialist narrative (e.g. the gunpoint diplomacy of the Middle East) connect with the effect on the Pacific? What role does the “modern savage” play in this narrative?

The final poem is in the voice of Cook’s widow (who outlived all her children and her husband by 56 years!) and is easily the most powerful moment of the show. It seems to be one of the cornerstones on which Faovale Imperium is built – and Nokise is at his performative best here. Unlike most others, he is familiar enough with the poem to allow his eyes to leave the page and present a more engaging and interesting character.

Once this energy is transferred to the rest of poems, Faovale Imperium will become a more complete production. As it is, there are times where I think that I could absorb this content in an audio-only medium, as we are merely watching Nokise read aloud.

Although Nokise makes a point of saying that this is not a sequel to last year’s excellent investigation of ‘Pasifika’ – RukahuFaovale Imperium definitely stands on the shoulders of its predecessor. Rukahu, too, began as a development season in the Fringe Festival – so the pathway to success is there. This show probably needs more work than Rukahu at the same point – but it certainly has the potential to be as good.

Once the significance of the different poems is clearer, and Nokise is comfortable enough to perform, rather than read – Faovale Imperium will be a vital part of NZ theatre and poetry. Nokise’s unpolished charm and some moments of seriously great poetry are enough of a drawcard for this (koha) production though – so go along and check it out.


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