Fringe 2008, Te Whaea Theatre
Feb 13-16 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Vula is one of the most visually stunning theatre experiences I have ever had. The show, which explores the relationship between Pacific Island women and water, is performed by four women and an off-stage puppeteer, on a stage flooded with water. This gives rise for multiple opportunities to cast reflections and shadows of the performers and the various items they manipulate on the water and to use movement to disturb its surface. The effect of the performance, lighting design and sound design together left me with only one word to describe the show: beautiful.

Vula is unofficially divided into two halves. In the first half the ocean, with its myriad forms of life, is depicted. The performers move silently through the water, drenching themselves. Fans and other traditional items are used as puppets to represent plant and fish life. At one moment a shoal of flowers appears to swim across the stage. Gareth Farr’s amazing, Chapman Tripp award winning sound design more than compensates for the lack of speech in the performance, in addition to the evocative dance and mime of the performers. After a downpour of rain, the human interaction with the sea is documented. The four performers (Fiona Collins, Kasaya Manulevu, Ngapaki Emery and Nora Ata) talk, sing and dance together as they interact with the water. Most of this occurs in either Fijian or Samoan, but those audience members unfamiliar with the languages can grasp enough of the sense of their speech to understand there are moments of joy intermingled with grief and hardship being played out. They are lit beautifully by Stephen Blackburn’s lighting design – also an award winner.

Although someone remarked to me afterwards that he would have enjoyed the show more if he had been able to follow a story, I felt exhilarated by being freed of following a conventional Western-style narrative. Instead I was able to watch the exploration of a concept. My perception was not bound to any series of events or deciphering narrative questions – I was free to engage with the visual and aural aspects in a far less limited way.

An amazing moment occurred when an audience member got up to dance in reply to the performers, who looked surprised then delighted. This woman’s engagement had obviously gone beyond mere entertainment. This was reflected in turn by the standing ovation the performance received at its conclusion.

Vula has had time to perfect itself, being performed in its current form for about three years in many venues, including the Sydney Opera House last year. However, it still feels like a show inspired by deeply personal emotions and exploration, and thus retains depth and freshness. The Fringe Festival was privileged to have a show of this quality as part of Fringe 2008. If it tours again in New Zealand after returning from Europe I would urge anyone to see it. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the next Conch production in development, Masi.