40 Dei Ramble

I ran into Peter Walker and Jo Dorras, the founders of Wan Smolbag Theatre company, in town yesterday. They stopped and thanked me for the review I wrote about 40 Dei, their latest stage production. As she turned to leave, Jo said, “Nobody’s ever written that kind of a review on us before.”

Public commentators in Vanuatu don’t write nearly often enough about Wan Smolbag. Even when they do, their description of the work and its effect tend to fit them into the ‘development NGO’ straitjacket. That’s not entirely inaccurate, of course; Smolbag is a development NGO. But such descriptions are incomplete.

Woefully so, in my opinion. Once understood, the reasons for this misperception explain a great deal about the failures of many formal development programmes. (That’s programmes, mind you, not projects. But that’s an essay for another day.) The problem, ultimately, is our human incapacity to quantify, or even adequately to analyse, certain cultural inputs.

Now, given that Smolbag has been working with the softer tools of drama, dialogue, understanding and community awareness for twenty years, they’ve got the issue pretty well sussed. At least innately. If there are still tensions between what they want to do and what donors are willing to fund, they’re manageable, and it must be said that, from top to bottom, Smolbag staff know what they’re about. They’re are as good at demonstrating the value of their work to donors, partners and the public as anyone I’ve encountered in a couple of decades of part- and full-time advocacy work.

But the preceding is really just a digression – I need to say a few things about Wan Smolbag as an artistic institution, and the only way to get there is to indulge in a deliberate bit of hand-waving that runs the risk of belittling the dozens of non-theatrical activities they manage. There’s a small mountain of data out there expressing in very finite terms just how effective this group is.

My point, I guess, is that no matter how good that makes them – and they are very good indeed – there’s more to it than that. And that’s what I want to write about today.

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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.

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Two Boards and a Passion

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

Before William Shakespeare penned his first words, Spanish culture was ignited by a soldier, adventurer and scholar named Lope de Vega. Considered one of the great playwrights of all time, he transformed Spanish culture by creating simple character-driven plays, written for the first time in colloquial Spanish.

One of his most enduring pronouncements was that theatre consisted of nothing more than two boards and a passion. All that is required, he said, is a platform to stand on, and a script that evokes passion – in the character and in the minds of the audience.

Vanuatu’s own Wan Smolbag theatre shows us just how true this is.

In the late eighties, a young British couple arrived in Vanuatu. With nothing more than a bag of costumes and a few passionate companions, they created a revolution. What started as a dynamic troupe of players is now a national – and regional – institution, one of Vanuatu’s cultural crown jewels.

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