The Powerful and the Good

[This review of Wan Smolbag Theatre’s new play, Zero Balans was written for the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

Zero Balans, the new play from Wan Smolbag Theatre, seems to argue that you can be powerful and you can be good, but you can’t be both at once.

Noel Aru as Ezekiel in Wan Smolbag Theatre's Zero Balans This political morality tale recounts the story of Ezekiel. A charismatic, intelligent and powerful man, his weakness and self-indulgence have led him to achieve only notoriety in his years as a cabinet minister. Struck down by an early heart attack and faced with eternal damnation, he demands, cajoles and finally begs the Recording Angels for just a little more time to achieve all the good he intended.

We follow him through flashbacks from his early days in politics. His wildly optimistic promises inflame and inspire the fictional community of Lagoon Saed. The delirium of his first election victory quickly wanes, however; before the celebration is properly over, he is already beset with demands from above and below.

Derek, Ezekiel’s mentor and financier, quickly reminds him where his sympathies had better lie, but not before Ezekiel’s wife and sister have begun to plague him with demands for the family. The community chief, an amiable old rascal, is quickest of all, proclaiming the newly-minted MP’s value to the community even as the voting results are being read.

This is Vanuatu. Everybody needs something, and it’s never something small. In a cutely staged scene, community members literally climb over one another to bend Ezekiel’s ear – and open his wallet. His political masters are happy to keep him flush with cash, but only as long as he toes the party line.

Politicians in Ezekiel’s world seem to have a nodding acquaintance with policy and development, but the ever-present threat of a confidence motion leaves them perpetually scrambling after cash and other emoluments to keep their MPs onside. Happily for them, they do not lack in assistance from outside ‘investors’ willing to grease the wheels of the political machine.

Ezekiel is willing to say anything to avoid damnation. But as events progress, we come to see him as merely human, a man fallen victim to the same desires and temptations as any other man – albeit sometimes two at a time. Beset as he is in a morass of venality, short-sightedness and fickleness, he is, ultimately, no better than he should be.

It’s notable that the play’s purportedly moral and upright citizens come out with very little shine remaining on their respective halos. Playwright Jo Dorras, as she always does, avoids the easy accusations. Refusing the lie that politicians are just amoral rascals sprung sui generis from the ranks of humanity, she shows how the scramble for advancement and advantage afflicts everyone, inside politics and out.

But this is not a society of villains. If Ezekiel’s sister wants more money, it’s to send her children to a better school. The chief comes seeking hundreds of thousands, not for himself but for the local church. Ezekiel protests to the Recording Angels that it was these demands (and not the endless spending on baubles, booze and debauchery) that have driven him into the company of men who are altogether too comfortable in the faithless, venal world of Vanuatu politics.

Given a chance at redemption, however, Ezekiel quickly finds himself bereft of friends and influence. In becoming a good man at last, he is stripped of the influence he once had.

As with all Smolbag productions, Zero Balans avoids polemic and prescription. The play seeks primarily to subvert the common conception that simply changing one’s MP is enough to change the cycle of corruption and callous disregard for the future. It is a mordant indictment of Vanuatu society’s inability to look beyond its immediate needs and desires, to forego quick reward in order to strive for a greater good.

Nobody, it appears, is willing to forebear in order for all to thrive.

The only characters who demonstrate any degree of redemption are those who, like Ezekiel, are at last left with nothing but the clarity of their own vision. The performance of the night was provided by Helen Kailo, who played Lisa on the evening we went. (She shares the role with Florence Taga, another powerful young actor.) Kailo’s fluid, natural and finally heart-breaking rendition of a young woman seduced, discarded and ultimately cast out of her own community was one of the best yet seen onstage in Vanuatu.

But the wisdom of misplaced love and bitter experience isn’t enough to obviate the oppression of society and circumstance. In this world, some forces are too great for any of us.

Director Peter Walker says, “[W]e collude with politicians and it takes a brave person to rock the boat. However the danger is that even if someone does rock the boat it may be too late because some people are beyond the law.

Zero Balans features some of the most polished and professional performances to grace Wan Smolbag’s stage so far – and certainly its best ensemble effort. It’s testament to the commitment of the husband and wife team of Peter Walker and Jo Dorras that many of Smolbag’s actors have been appearing consistently on stage and screen for years now – some for decades. Their maturity, experience and enduring passion add fluidity and considerable nuance to a complex, demanding script.

Morinda Tari, as the protagonist’s importunate sister Elise, was so consistently powerful and natural that we’re not sure people even realised they were watching a character. She has the power to carry an entire play. We hope to see her in a leading role some day soon.

Noel Aru (who alternates with veteran Titus Joseph as Ezekiel) created a mannered, professional portrayal of a complex, deeply flawed man who quite literally fights for his life from the beginning of the play. He showed the maturity of a seasoned actor, sustaining his presence yet allowing space for others such as Donald Frank, whose smooth, serpent-like self-awareness made Derek, a mephistophelian political leader, at once alluring and repugnant.

Special mention goes to Danny Marcel, who plays two key roles (as the PM and the community’s chief) with such adroitness and flair that we honestly didn’t realise we were watching the same man. His sense of timing and physicality is superb. Aru, Frank and Marcel’s first scene together is a comic gem that competes with the best British political satire.

Zero Balans is performed at 7:00 p.m. every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evening at Wan Smolbag until June 25th. Tickets are 50 vatu each. Arrive at least an hour early to be guaranteed a seat.