Auckland Town Hall, THE EDGE
March 27-April 19 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

THIS PLAY has been adapted from Samoan writer Sia Figiel’s award winning coming-of-age story, set in a Samoan village in the 1970’s. Entering the modified space of the Auckland Town Hall, one has an immediate sense of expectation. The normally sedate Concert Chamber has been transformed with stadium seating into something that resembles a boxing arena, with rows of audience members facing each other across a platform stage. As the five cast members enter singing and dressed in white, the stage shimmers into light. It’s a magical entrance.

Like a theatrical boxing match, during the play the cast members frequently swap dominance, roles and ages, often with bewildering speed and without a pause for 90 minutes. Once this convention is established though, it’s possible to keep up with the huge cast of characters and the complicated storyline. Watching the play is exhausting but exhilarating. It demands constant attention and engagement, not least because of the high-stakes themes of family loyalty, colonisation/oppression, and love.

Not having read the novel (an oversight which will be remedied soon), I am not in a position to comment how well Dave Armstrong has kept true to the original. It’s a premise which is itself worthy of a tale I think, a Palagi man who takes on a much-loved classic by a female Samoan writer. But according to the programme notes both Armstrong and Figiel were keen to see what happened, and with the input of the experienced cast and another Palagi-Samoan directing team (McColl and Fane), a strongly original play has emerged that manages to reflect the Samoan world view in a thought-provoking way.

Some of the material – especially the domestic violence and casual sexual exploitation of women – seems familiar now, to an audience used to a recent rich diet of plays from the Polynesian diaspora. But Figiel’s book was written over ten years ago, at a time when these things were not widely discussed or acknowledged. And mark of the strength of her storytelling – and that of the creative team behind the play – is that these stories still have the power to shock, to amaze, and to resonate long after the lights have been switched off in the theatre.

Case in point: during the after-show discussion, a well-meaning Palagi audience member asked, “So does violence still happen in Samoa?” There was a pause while cast members visibly struggled to contain themselves. It was Goretti Chadwick (who teaches in South Auckland and whose students were in the audience) who explained, with considerable passion, that the story is as relevant today as it would have been all those years ago: the kids in our (Kiwi) society need this kind of storytelling to validate their own experiences and to enable them to be able to tell their own stories. And this needs to happen in all our communities, Chadwick said, too quietly.

It is this, the power of the stories, that is highlighted in the play. There are many types of storytelling used: from the traditional village elders, to children telling stories among themselves, to more formal church and school-based methods. The book itself is written in the su’ifeifiloi form, a Samoan oral tradition, but this is linearised and simplified for clarity reasons for the play. The fluidity of the interweaving stories is preserved through the constantly moving bodies of the actors, however.

Each member of the ensemble cast gives strong performances in multiple roles. Robbie Magasiva makes a welcome departure from recent typecasting as a “Polynesian stud” by his brooding performance as Filiva, the father caught between family expectations and dirty sexual secrets, while Joy Vaele captures the innocence and bewilderment of Alofa, the girl around which the story revolves. Pua Magasiva showcases his considerable comedic talent and capacity for mimicry. Goretti Chadwick and Anapela Polataivao are excellent in multiple supporting roles, swapping easily from giggling schoolgirls to a flustered schoolteacher or bullying grandmother. It is Chadwick who delivers one of the most powerful moments in the play, as Siniva, the blind female outcast who rails against traditional society and colonial power and provides an alternative path for Alofa to travel. I would have liked to have learned more of Siniva’s story during the play, given she is such a pivotal figure: she seemed to get a little lost in the second half, only resurfacing at the end of the play when Alofa learns of her final fate.

The ATC has built a reputation for immaculate staging and this production is no exception. The set (designed by Michel Tuffery) is minimalistic but that doesn’t mean it is simple : perspex benches turn from church pews into drums, jandals are used for every purpose except as footwear, and a remarkable soundscape (by John Gibson) is created using just the jandals, the benches and the actor’s bodies. The most striking feature of the set design is the enigmatic perspex sculpture that hangs above the stage. “What is that – is it meant to be a whalebone or a house?” wondered my friend when we first entered. As the story unfolded it became what we were dreaming of: a house, an upturned boat, finally an airy feather floating away in search of the next story. You’ll have to watch the play to find out if you see the same things as I did, but whatever you see, this much is guaranteed: it will leave an imprint in your mind.