The cast of Masi | Everest Theatre

Conch isn’t only a name for a large sea snail, or its shell. It’s a Kiwi theatre company, founded in Wellington, with hands across the South Pacific to Fiji. As with the shell, you can hear (and see) the sound of the ocean in it. I’m also presuming, as with the Marxist ska band of the same name, (The) Conch is a euphemistic abbreviation of consciousness.

Founded in 2002 by associate director Tom McCrory and artistic director Nina Nawalowalo, the company has experienced explosive growth and success (as far afield as London’s Barbican) — yet, aside from a previous visit in 2006 with Vula (Fijian for moon), Australia seems to be the unlucky country, inasmuch as being, seemingly, among the last to celebrate it. By rights, this should now change, dramatically, with the short Sydney Festival season of Masi just wrapped-up.

Nawalowalo directs this deeply personal, almost unbelievably true story of abiding love between Ratu Noa Nawalowalo, a Fijian high chief from Kadavu island on his way to read for his Bachelor of Laws and Mary Tancock, a British nurse on a working holiday, the daughter of Cambridge-educated schoolmasters.

When I say story, it’s not told through spoken word, but through song, dance, visual spectacle and magic. Magic? Well, yes, in the form of illusions devised and designed by Paul Kieve (known for his work on the Harry Potter films and Scorsese’s latest, Hugo, among other projects). The unusual mix of media used conjures the invisible, intangible fabric of memory with heartrending redolence. This is a brilliant sketch of history, heritage and happenstance, that also stands as an homage; a generous, posthumous gesture of respect by Nawalowalo, in honour of her parents.

It’s the ’50s. Having caught each other’s eyes somewhere in transit (whether at an airport, train or bus station is unclear and immaterial), the fated couple discover a mutual interest, in chess, and arrange to meet at a club to play. A chequerboard romance ensues. Of course, in a broader sense, Masi (which takes its name from the ancient art of Fijian cloth-making) is about love found and lost; identity; the soft-focus, perishable vagaries of memory. As such, one’s liable to be touched, not only specifically, by the gentle, forgiving tale woven before our eyes, but by our own recollections and regrets, which are inevitably bound to inform this work, so that it becomes as deeply personal for us as for its creators.

On entering the theatre, one is struck by the massive masi (or tapa, a more-or-less interchangeable descriptor, though referring to similar textiles deriving right across the Pacific islands) draped above the stage. Entirely handmade by Ro Miriama Saunayalewa Tubailagi, it’s a pageant in itself; in black and rust-brown and of exquisite design, it holds the enigmatic promise of surrendering secrets to those who know how to read it.

In the background, (what I took to be) a loop of traditional Fijian music may be heard. A light comes up, stage left, to reveal a cross-legged figure, Vakatara (Peni Jeffrey Lala), who enters into mesmeric chants that sound of the sublime. His voice, as well as those of the chorus (the Kabu ni Vanua dancers), are as good, round and full, if not moreso, as you’ll ever hear on any opera or other stage. The songs, or chants, are hymnal; a fusion of the best and most sacred traditions of church and tribe.

Nawalowalo takes the lead acting role; both a brave and appropriate decision. At a meditative, time-standing-still pace (compelling and seductive in itself), she opens an old suitcase with a reverence one would accord the holy grail. But, of course, in personal terms, this is her holy grail: the accoutrement, the emotional baggage if you will, of her parents’ legacy; a legacy, as all family legacies are, of both love and loss.

Kieve’s illusions really are magical and, by deft tricks involving screens, cloth and other objects, we’re introduced to a passing parade of protagonists and even a tree that grows, by leaps and bounds, before our very eyes. Again, this is the quality of memory and Kieve’s contributions point, not so obliquely, to the tricks it can play on us. It also gives licence to the ethereal, as when a spirit guide (Kasaya Manulevu) is suddenly realised, as if from another dimension.

Speaking of other dimensions, Ans Westra’s black-and-white photographs, projected as backdrops, lend an unmistakable post-war glamour to the lives of ordinary people, making each extraordinary. The precision of Nik Januriek’s lighting design is vital to the success of almost all the other elements, while Sue Prescott’s costumes present all the right flavours and textures.

Jana Castillo and Alexander Tarrant, as Mary and Ratu Noa Nawalowalo, are both unattainably beguiling; the Brad and Angelina of Oceania, only moreso. Semesi Rokobuludrau, who plays Ratu Noa as a boy, shows similarly bodacious promise.

Just as we are lulled into a deeply contemplative reverie, musing on our own misgivings and memories, burnished by Gareth Farr’s ravishing piano and cello soundtrack, we’re roused by the exhilarating muscularity of Maika Cobo, Dan John Fox, Paula Rokotuiveikau Nabuta, Tevita Salasalavonu, Ulaiasi Taoi and Mesake Vuniwai; collectively, Kabu ni Vanua. Passionate and percussive, these dancers are as central to the work as the impressionistic narrative, counterpointing its pensive sadness for the dear departed with a palpable sense of the of the hope and vitality that merge to become the lifeforce.

If flagging, or even if not, that force will be with you, once again, in seismic proportion, for some time after seeing this show, which is grounding and connective in a way social media and the inter web at large can and will never be. Life affirming. Maybe even life-changing. How often can you say that?

The details: Masi played the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Festival on January 20-25.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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