The Island by Massive Nui Ensemble
At Mangere Arts Centre till Friday 1 July
Massive has been running for twenty-five years and the youth arm, the Nui Ensemble, has been the starting point for many professional actors and theatre-makers. It offers opportunities to young people from varied backgrounds to focus on their own artistic and personal development - the school holiday workshops are free and can lead onto more committed work. The company, through their public performances, also offer young people the chance to tell their stories, and people the chance to hear them. And so it is with The Island.
It is theatre as social justice: community responsibility runs through the purpose of the work, making of the work, and in the work itself. Performers’ names are listed in alphabetical order rejecting hierarchy and reflects the sort of shows they present, where everyone gets a turn to tell their stories, reveal themselves and the people they know. There are themes and structure but no overarching plot. One imagines that in rehearsal they wouldn’t refer to a scene but ‘the bit with the photograph’. With such longevity it is perhaps unsurprising that the company has a distinct style: physical, dance-based, musical, transformative, episodic.
What keeps things fresh is the enthusiasm of the cast, the humour in the stories, and the glory of the harmony singing. Exploring the qualities of island life, New Zealand experiences are contrasted with heavenly holidays in Samoa. Three of the cast are Samoan, the very expressive and funny Sieni Leo’o, Jes’mine Palaaia, Denyce Su’a, and three pakeha, Stef Fink, Melissa Connors and, lone boy, Liam Jacobson, but they all slip in and out of different skins and races, including Maori, easily. They all want to travel, to cross the oceans and see the world: all of them want to come home again.
They will have their wish. The cast is heading to the Hebrides in the UK to take part in a festival of youth theatre run by the National Theatre of Scotland, and all will then go on to see a bit of Europe. Early in rehearsals, the cast was asked what they wanted the world to know about them, and this piece evolved from there. It is both a projection of and a love letter to New Zealand, of their childhoods, barefoot on beaches, their loved ones and coming of age. They dance, imitate the aunties, and boys who fancy them and make us laugh. It is all overwhelmingly positive. When they all sing together at the end with such power and such beautiful harmonies it is heaven – I could have listened long into the night.
One thing I observe is that perhaps because the stories come from the young cast, perhaps because there is only so much they want to reveal about them to the outside world, there is a lack of complexity in the work, a lack of conflict. There is little of the dark side of New Zealand here. If you were to take the optimistic view, and I want to, then perhaps it is because, despite the widening gap between haves and have-nots, the divides between ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is still a lot about living and growing up in New Zealand to love.