Part of Bite08, the Barbican’s series of plays from around the world, Vula – Fijian for ‘moon’ – takes us to the Pacific Islands to witness the relationship between women and the sea.
On a visit to Fiji, director Nina Nawalowalo saw in the water a place where so many dimensions of women were expressed. She felt she had to write the play, and in the event succeeded in bringing all of these dimensions to the fore.
Descending to the Barbicans pit theatre after a long week at work, nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead. The stage had become a pool and was covered entirely in water. With darkness pervading the air, I knew we were about to embark on a journey: I just wasnt sure of the destination.
The production began with a sequence of serene solo dances, each presenting an object with ceremonial significance (woven mats, or the Kava bowl that holds the sacred drink). Then followed a meditation on the moon with a woman gently caressing its reflection. There was no splashing or sudden movements here. The water stood as still as rock as the womans hands moved ever and ever closer to it, only finally touching it and then immersing her long flowing curls. It was calm that penetrated the night and, with the lights still dimmed, the sense of the woman reaching for the moon, for water and for life, made the audience feel that they too were on a similar quest.
Then came dances based on the fauna of the Pacific, with skilfully controlled fans portraying birds swooping and fish swimming in wonderful formations. This also revealed how everyday objects (fans and brooms) are frequently made from the material of nature, although this had a double-edged ring. Did this, as the programme argued, reveal how such objects retain natures life, or simply illustrate how mankind furthers its ends by destroying nature? The answer depends on whether we see animals eating others (as these dances also illustrated) as an integral part of nature, or as revealing that nature too is cruel. Either way, the dances were potent from both a visual and metaphorical viewpoint.
And, above all, they revealed the Fijian womens affinity with the sea, as did those dances that followed, though these were more focused on society. We saw women going to church, singing, braving downpours; we also saw family relationships represented. These scenes closed with a frenetic, but tightly choreographed, dance that saw all four cast members creating great waves in the water.
Amazingly, the dancers never once looked tired or uncomfortable in spite of seventy minutes in unheated water and long flowing skirts. For them the sheer act of performing was a celebration, and their own kinship with the water seemed so strong that it hardly felt like a performance at all.
Gareth Farrs compositions worked superbly. Based on music played in the Pacific, they formed the spiritual backbone for the dances, and included songs in Samoan, Fijian and Te Reo Maori. The production similarly demonstrated technical prowess. For example, we saw flowers apparently drifting freestyle across the water, yet actually retaining their formation.
But most moving was seeing how Fiji and nature met the world of theatre, with the latter enhancing the former. Theatre can be a mystical world anyway, and I felt I gained more from this production than I would have done from watching, for example, people playing in the sea for real. Perhaps this is to undermine the spirituality of the original, but as the production argues that women contribute to nature by adding another dimension to it, so did the theatre add a further one still.
And so I emerged feeling I had experienced ‘total’ theatre. Total because theatre constituted both the medium and essence of the presentation; total because the audience felt as subsumed in the play as the performers. Indeed, whilst the latter portrayed many emotions and danced in a variety of styles, the affinity they always showed with the specific moment made us forget how versatile they needed to be. And, when at the end we saw the peaceful images of a body and boat floating across the sea at the setting sun, as the women called home the ancestral canoes, the totality became complete. This was theatre that embraced life to the full, and death as an integral part of it.