The Devil at our Shoulder

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

ABOUT THIS SHOW: 40 Dei plays at Wan Smolbag Haos in Tagabe on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The show starts at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are 50 vatu for adults, students and children. Because of its popularity, attendees should arrive at least one hour before show time to be guaranteed seating.

The thematic heart of 40 Dei (40 Days), Wan Smolbag’s powerful new play, is the story of Jesus’ 40 days of suffering and temptation in the desert. With Satan constantly at his side, Jesus fasted, contemplated and steadfastly resisted the Devil’s threats and inducements. Even in the extremities of suffering, he accepted his humanity, refusing assistance either from above or below.

As the New Testament tells it, Jesus embarked on this pilgrimage of suffering immediately after his baptism. It was, in a sense, his preparation to enter into the world. We first meet Matthew, the protagonist in Jo Dorras’ stark, deeply probing script, as he emerges from his own moral desert, a wasted youth of faithlessness, drinking and violence.

Lying on the roadside, bloody, filthy, half-clothed, Matthew presents a repulsive figure. Only Lei, a pastor’s daughter, sees him for what he is – a lost soul. Ignoring imprecations to leave this filth, this ‘doti blong taon’ where he lies, she instead recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan to her father.

Matthew awakes from his stupor to a vision of love – a beautiful young woman beside him, joyous music and light emerging from a nearby chapel. He is transformed, and decides at that moment to leave his errant past behind, to seek redemption and salvation.

But as with Jesus in the desert, the Devil is always at his side. And Matthew is human, all too human. Beset by difficulties, he tries to navigate the narrow passage between hypocritical moral rectitude and the nihilistic, hopeless existence of his young friends.

Like all of Wan Smolbag’s productions, 40 Dei is a powerful, provocative show, acted with conviction and world class talent by its cast. It reminds us again and again that there are no easy answers, that Christian kindness demands more than many – most – are willing to give. Its characters find themselves tested repeatedly. Events conspire to probe the limits of their ability to forgive, to embrace others regardless of their path in life, and to withstand the temptation to trade their fundamental humanity for worldly privilege.

Nobody wins. Dorras’ script is too honest an evocation of mundane human weakness to pretend that our world is populated only by angels and devils. Sinners are not always saved, and the devout are not always as unblemished as they first seem.

Where others fall prey to petty ambition, moral weakness and, in one starkly moving sub-plot, to madness, Matthew is almost alone in his willingness to confront the difficulties he faces. More often than not, this means that things go harder for him than for the others. He sacrifices friendship, even love, to his sense of duty. But in the end, his decision to show kindness to his outcast comrades proves to be his greatest test.

Anybody who’s opened a newspaper in the last few years will recognise the characters and events portrayed here. Smolbag’s greatest gift to us is its ability to show us our own world. The play is populated by the same reprobates, righteous hypocrites, prostitutes, politicians and just plain folks as we find in any neighbourhood in Port Vila.

We all walk with the Devil at our shoulder. Without surrendering to dogmatic, moralistic finger-wagging, 40 Dei confronts us with the knowledge that the most insidious enemy to Vanuatu society lies within it, not without. Until we recognise that there are no easy answers to the complex afflictions of a society in transition, until we accept that prostitutes, prisoners and penitents alike are all our family, until we recognise our own weakness in the face of venality and ambition, we will never completely be whole.

In the words of the immortal Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

I can’t recommend this play strongly enough. Those who have never wandered far from Vanuatu’s shores might not realise what a remarkable thing Wan Smolbag’s contribution to the national dialogue really is. Its painful, sometimes tortured honesty, its willingness to forego simplistic moralising and to grope for the deeper causes, and its stubborn refusal to accept the easy answers stand it in good stead with some of the most notable theatre companies working today.

I sincerely hope their consistent excellence doesn’t make us complacent. As a lifelong devotee of the theatre (and one-time participant), I can testify to the immense effort and sacrifice that this courageous troupe gifts us with in every performance.

If their efforts are to bear fruit, we too need to engage in the dialogue they offer. We need to recognise our own weakness, turpitude and occasional hypocrisy. We need to resist the urge to cast out those who fall by the wayside. We need to live with the difficult, complicated and discomfiting knowledge that we are – all of us – one people.