A Bushknife Wedding

Max bursts onstage, tears his mother’s headscarf from her head, covers himself with it and dives into the darkness, hiding among the audience members. Moments later, Sonia, his on-again-off-again girlfriend, appears. She demands to know where he is. She too disappears offstage, returning moments later with a bushknife in her hand and murder in her eye. The ensuing chaos brings the entire community out, and in the course of a raucous meeting, a chief decides that the only choice for these ‘Tom and Jerry’ lovers is for them to marry.

Wan Smolbag Theatre’s new play, a musical titled Laef I Swit (Life is Sweet) tells a tragicomic tale of passion, love and life in Vanuatu. Max and Sonia are a mismatched, all too typical modern couple. Sonia’s idealised dreams of love as a means of escape from the dangers, tedium and frustration of life as a downtrodden woman are dashed when she encounters Max, a sweet-talking, mercurial and charming –but utterly unreliable– man. Nothing can make them happy together, but the prospect of being torn apart seems too much to bear.

Thematically, Laef I Swit is a smaller play than usually emerges from playwright Jo Dorras’ pen. But this only adds to its power. The forces that act on Ni Vanuatu society are compressed into a domestic drama that is poignant, fleetingly sweet and often outright heartbreaking. Director Peter Walker’s staging is, as always, engaging and inventive. He blurs the line between audience and actors, driving the action right in among the seats. It’s a reminder that this play is not simply to be observed. It’s our story, not someone else’s, happening quite literally in our midst.

While music has always been a feature of Wan Smolbag’s stage productions, this is the first time the troupe has given us a full-on musical. All the key moments are played out in song. And what songs they are. The words by Jo Dorras are woven into long, lyrical passages that closely echo the breathless, sonorous flow of Bislama so often heard in Port Vila’s markets and meeting places. The music, composed collaboratively by several company members, covers a broad swathe of styles, ranging from ‘classical’ Broadway to raw, angry rap, to a send-up of American Evangelical gospel, parodied with off-beat brilliance by Smolbag veteran Noel Aru.

As in all its major theatrical productions, Wan Smolbag draws on its depth of talent, using a dual cast. Virana David and Florence Taga share the role of Sonia. Both have a deep well of musical ability to draw upon, and their acting will move even the hardest heart. Dorras’ script has provided them with a character whose exploration draws them to the finest performance I’ve seen yet from either. Virana David has a gift for internalising the conflict of a young woman in hopelessly in love with a hopeless choice of a man, drawing the audience into her turmoil. Florence Taga plays the conflict outward, at one point outright begging the audience for understanding. Their brilliant, contrasting performances are reason enough alone to see the play twice at least.

Both Donald Frank and Albert Tommy (who returns to the main stage after several years’ hiatus) are memorable in their portrayal of Max, a charming lout whose roguish behaviour sometimes descends into brutality. It would be the easiest thing in the world to allow this character to become merely a villain, but both actors manage to remind us of the man that Sonia fell in love with. The final scenes in the play would fail were it not for their ability to humanise a decidedly unsympathetic role.

This wouldn’t –couldn’t– be a play about Vanuatu if drama were not inextricably mingled with satire, joy and bawdy hilarity. Much of the (much-needed) comic relief is provided by Richie Benjamin, whose character, the MC, flits in and out of the action, providing a bridge between audience and actors. His campy persona is disarmingly cute and puckish. It’s as if the MC in the Broadway classic Cabaret had left Berlin to join the Marx Brothers. But Mr Benjamin shows maturity and a surprising depth of compassion at key moments, saving his character from becoming merely a clown.

In every review I write, limited space makes it impossible to mention each and every notable performance. But this year, I feel particularly apologetic. As the company grows and its members mature together, the depth of talent only increases. This is a team with no second string – every single actor could carry a production on his or her shoulders alone. Together, they are a formidable force.

But special mention must be made of the younger actors – if only because veterans such as Noel Aru, Charleon Falau, Morinda Tari, Annette Vira and Joyanne Quiqui had better know how good they are by now. Sereanna Kalkaua’s first appearance in a main stage production shows a wealth of potential. Edgell Junior and Michael Maki share the devilishly difficult role of Eddie. Torn between his unrequited love of Sonia and friendship with Max, his conscience can have no peace. Helen Kailo plays Nancy, a woman just beginning to understand herself and her own strength. Ms Kailo makes the role her own, casting off a tendency to play the quirks more than the character, painting a portrait whose mix of strength and vulnerability, transgression and tradition make a fully realised, memorable person.

It’s almost a crime that language, place and circumstance deny Wan Smolbag theatre the prominence and appreciation they deserve on the world stage. But we can take some comfort from knowledge that, in celebration of twenty-five years of performing in Vanuatu, Wan Smolbag is hosting an international theatre festival next month. If there is any justice in this world, visiting performers will not only enrich our country with their work, but they’ll return home with tales of a theatrical community good enough to rival any in the world.

Laef I Swit runs until June 25th, along with a revival of last year’s play, Klaem Long Lada Ia. Check the posters around town for dates and times, and book your tickets either at Wan Smolbag or in front of the Vanuatu Post building.