Classical opera is about love, death, superb music and opulent staging, and so too is Masi, a new work by Nina Nawalowalo, the creative force behind Wellington’s The Conch Pacific theatre company. Masi was created for the 2012 New Zealand Arts Festival, where it received rave reviews before opening in Fiji and briefly visiting Australia as part of the 2013 Sydney Festival.
Masi is the Fijian word for bark cloth or tapa, a soft and pliable cloth made by beating out strips of paper mulberry tree bark, felting them together to make larger pieces, and painting and decorating these to make clothing, sitting mats and house decorations. It was once the common fabric of the Pacific, now replaced by trade cloth.
Fiji is a very Christian society today, but the role of tapa survives as an embodiment of the essentially Polynesian social relationships and personal obligations uniting Fijians both in Fiji and the diaspora. It is also a symbol of cultural survival, created by thousands of Fijian women who still beat out the bark strips on wooden blocks with their grooved tapa hammers, or weave the fine grass mats with woollen fringes that serve the same purpose – these may still be exchanged by the dozen, or even by the hundred, at every really important event.
Once, the most common sound in any Fijian village used to be the tap, tap, tapping of the tapa hammers, but with many Fijian women in full time jobs today, masi is often created by specialist crafts villages and purchased when needed to meet social obligations
The magnificent masi cloth that drapes the proscenium arch of the stage for this production was especially produced by the women of Ekuba village on the island of Vatulele, Fiji and th e precision of its patterns and vibrant colours recall the finest examples of 18th and 19th century masi in western museums.
Nawalowalo wrote Masi to honour the memories of mother and father. Her father, Ratu Noa Nowalowalo, a chief from the island of Kadavu, came to Wellington in New Zealand in the1950s to complete his education. There, in the sedate and somewhat scruffy surroundings of the Wellington Chess Club, he met the blond daughter of two Cambridge educated teachers and they fell in love and married.
Masi It is a real story about real people, but told in an un-real way. Nowalowalo is a director who fearlessly combines staging techniques most directors would never have considered workable and that is a large part of the charm of this production.
And then there is the magic. The illusions were designed by Paul Kieve, who consulted for the Harry Potter movies and who is an old friend of Nawalowalo’s (she must have the world’s most eclectic address book). At Kieve’s behest, human beings emerge from thrown tapa cloths that were empty rags a moment before, and paper mulberry trees grow on stage.
Nawalowalo also borrows the idea of the sideways wipe from early cinema as unseen actors carry screens across the stage on which slides are projected, usually serving to advance the narrative or provide a link between one scene and the next. This is a compelling, almost hypnotic narration told in movement, music, Fijian chants and images, without any dialogue in English.
The other link between scenes are the six male dancers from the renowned Kabu ni Vanua dance troupe, who represent the Chief’s Fijian spirit and who provide the chorus and the movements of classic Fijian traditional meke dancing which is interwoven into the story to symbolise the spirit of Nawalowalo’s father.
They are responsible for 10 or 12 heart- stopping minutes when all hell breaks loose as the dancers emerge through a curtain of masi with its patterns projected onto their bodies and perform a fast and flashy male meke dance full of complex moves involving the entire upper body, all perfectly synchronised.
This could have been the climax of the performance, but Nawalowalo is always full of surprises, and this frenetic explosion of sound and movement gives way to a solemn, slow-danced coda which is a chant for her father’s funeral. Brava!
See tribal art catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/products.asp
Join me on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/david.said.165