NZ Arts Festival 2008, Downstage Theatre
March 8-16 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

Where We Once Belonged is a stunning and haunting adaptation of Sia Figiel’s 1994 novel of the life (and death) of 1970s Samoa. Adaptor Dave Armstrong has taken segments of the novel to form a rich and mesmerising play; and one which retains the novel’s key elements. This Auckland Theatre Company/International Arts Festival co-production brings a timely, insightful and above all very funny exploration of the lives of young people growing up in Samoa. It gives voice to the choking influence of Western materialism, the legacy of colonialism and the fading memories of the ‘we’ past.

The wide range of stories, dialogues and descriptions of the novel are more or less smoothly transformed into the rapid fire pace of the stage play. The spirituality, mythology and many of the underlying themes of Figiel’s novel are strongly recognisable.

For example, the theme of a kind of matriarchy that is ultimately accountable to the male head of the house is evidenced in the dynamic between Filiga (Robbie Magasiva) and his mother Tausi (Anapela Polataivao). Likewise the conflict between the Protestant missionaries’ idea of individualism and the Samoan community’s concept of communalism is brought clearly to life in the exchanges between ‘Miss Cunningham’ (Goretti Chadwick) from the Peace Corps and her students – Alofa (Joy Vaele), Asu (Pua Magasiva), and Moa (Anapela Polataivao). “I’m not interested in ‘we’! I am interested in ‘I’!” repeats Cunningham with fervent frustration.

Only the final sorrowful moment, and the character of Siniva (played by Chadwick), remain a little mystified for me; Siniva’s character is clear cut when performed, but the link between the Siniva that Alofa refers to and the “village fool” of the earlier scene is obscure. There is a sense that we need to see the Siniva she is talking of to immediately make the final, poignant connection.

The white-lit set, clear Perspex tables and jet-black jandals create a sometimes eerie, always precise atmosphere of contrasting black and white. The ‘Scenic’ design by Michel Tuffery has captured both the sense of an island – the glowing box centre stage – and of an urbanising environment – as when the Perspex tables are turned into a TV “from New Zealand”. With this design Tuffery has subverted typical notions of Samoan paradise scenery; and thus encouraged viewers to focus much more strongly on the dialogue and interactions of the actors on stage.

But the greatest impression the play leaves is that of the immense ability of the actors and the superb direction which has allowed them to flourish. Directing duo Colin McColl and David Fane have opted for high energy movements and quick scene changes where it matters; the resultant series of fluid yet stand alone segments allows for both fellowship and lonely pain. Full use of the three sided stage and some careful ‘acting with the back’ mean audience members from all sides feel included in the theatrics; yet spontaneity has not been lost in the process of rehearsal. The cast’s sheer enjoyment of the work is epitomised in a moment on opening night when Robbie Magasiva and Pua Magasiva explode into laughter ‘off-stage’ while Joy Vaele accidentally opens an ‘oven’ backwards. Vaele, Chadwick and Polataivao also struggle to control their laughs in what is yet another hilarious and uniquely candid moment.

Where We Once Belonged is a truly refreshing theatrical experience, and one that will hopefully inspire the realist theatre of Wellington to branch out into more creative and heart driven works. Jugging by the popularity of this show, there is certainly an audience waiting for just that to happen.