Marama - The Conch
3 March 2016, Q Theatre - Auckland
Reviewed by Raewyn Whyte
A small clearing in the primordial South Pacific rainforest is the setting for Marama, a very beautiful visual theatre work developed by The Conch under director Nina Nawalowalo as a call from women of the Pacific to put an end to wholescale deforestation.
The clearing represents the undisturbed rainforest of earlier eras, large pockets of which can still be found in the remotest parts of the Pacific today. This is a beautifully realistic place conjured by designers (set design by Nicole Cosgrove, remounted by John Verryt and lighting design by Fabiana Piccioli) from layers of projected imagery and subtly placed lighting which at times reveals realistic objects. The tracery of tall tree ferns seen from below provides the dome of the clearing, with silhouetted old trunks, jutting branches, hanging vines and suspended objects which are barely visible in the shadows, and a floor covered in leaves and other detritus. A soundscape composed by Gareth Farr accompanies this scene, but has little to do with realism, apart from an occasional burst of bird sound and later the intrusion of industrial reality. Instead, it aestheticises proceedings with passages ranging from a spacy percussive underlay with drones, to richly symphonic sections, and occasional sampling of indigenous instruments and singing, which unfortunately tends to drown out the voices of the cast as they sing.
The narrative arc of this production is clear, from dawn to dusk, and overnight to the day beyond that. The first day stretches for aeons of peaceful, harmonious, repetitiously structured habitation, brought to life by a quartet of Pasifika women who animate the space with dance and song and ritual and taonga. The final night and morning bring a fifth woman and chaotic contemporary reality.
Three scenes are memorably climactic. The first is the opening scene, at daybreak. As day slowly dawns, a huge spider steps delicately across the floor and crosses the prone body of a woman, sleeping under large leaves. She slowly wakes to rise and greet the day, wearing traditional clothing of the Solomon Islands, her grass skirt rustling as she slowly moves towards the audience.
She is the first of four traditionally-dressed women to lay claim in turn to this idyllic scene and welcome the audience to share it, stamping it as very much a women's space. Each woman walks very slowly across the clearing from different entry points to stand in a place of her own. Each ritually marks her territory with traditional song, chants and dance, and the presentation of a valued taonga, before exiting. The four women - Susan Galutia and Gloria Konare from different provinces of the Solomon Islands, Tupe Lualua from Samoa/NZ, and Awhina Rose-Henare Ashby from Aotearoa/NZ, gather together once all have been introduced. They move slowly through the clearing, carrying out everyday activities, dancing together a little, or resting languidly while fantails flit about over their heads, before lying down to sleep with huge white moths floating through the treetops.
The second climactic scene is heart-stopping and arrives with the fifth woman, who stumbles in towards the end of proceedings. Grace Tiba, also from the Solomons, wearing contemporary clothing, appears inebriated, and has clearly been attacked and sexually abused. She is dumped into the clearing from a very noisy vehicle with blinding bright lights, instantly placing the women into defensive mode. From here it is downhill all the way -- the shocking industrial sounds of chainsaws and bark strippers and root grinders at work clearly communicate the lightning-quick and totalising process of deforestation, followed by the setting of fires to clear the land of debris.
In the final scene, the work's true climax, the women in contemporary clothing stand amidst the ashes of their former sacred space grieving for the destruction of the rainforest and the wildlife it provides homes for, lamenting the violence which they have witnessed, silently imploring the audience to put a stop to such degradation.
Director Nina Nawalowalo's intention is that by presenting such scenes she will raise awareness of what is happening to the forest and the women of the Pacific, and consequently, that action will be taken to prevent such outcomes. Certainly, the staging of Marama communicates the shockingly destructive nature of deforestation, and the depth of loss felt by women to whom the rainforest has been a nurturing place. But it is one thing to fire-up an Auckland Festival audience to talk about such matters [NB there is nothing anywhere in the programme to suggest positive actions which might be taken by audience members]; it is quite another matter to stir the hearts and minds of landowners, loggers and other forestry industry stakeholders, and those who sit at corporate and multinational board tables where deforestation decisions are made. How can those people be brought to understand why rampant deforestation must not be allowed to continue?