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The failure and horror at the heart of human experience

Even as we commemorate the fallen of the 1914-18 battles and honour their sacrifices, war and the horrors of war are still with us everyday.

I AM: Many of those taking part in the performance do not have a background in conventional drama or dance training but have a practical understanding of the ceremonial.
I AM: Many of those taking part in the performance do not have a background in conventional drama or dance training but have a practical understanding of the ceremonial.

So when Lemi Ponifasio was commissioned by arts funders Creative New Zealand to contribute to its current focus on how the First World War affected that nation, he chose to look at the state the world is in now, and how we have progressed from the carnage that claimed thousands of lives from his own Pacific homelands.

What he saw revealed a different kind of horror, one that he has brought to the Edinburgh International Festival stage in I AM.

"I saw failure," he says. "I saw a failure of democracy, a failure of economics, a failure of government but also a failure of society. Because even with that history behind us, we still see war as a solution.

"And I see a failure in ourselves, in humankind, to look for new options. Instead, people are consumed with disappointment that they never have enough money, or possessions or whatever it is they think will make them happy. We live with a deep, deep dissatisfaction that needs to be questioned.

"I AM is about asking 'what does it mean to be human in 2014?' It's about audiences going on a journey, where they can hear their own heart speak."

Ponifasio, however, doesn't spoon-feed audiences easy answers. And not everyone stays the course. His previous productions at the 2010 Festival - Tempest: Without a Body and Birds with Skymirrors - saw people leave, confused and even exasperated. He laughs, a little ruefully, saying "I know, I know - I look at my work, and I understand how the experience is going to be for an audience.

"That it will be a struggle, because the theatre is not a place to escape your life, it is a place to confront yourself. My stage is not always clear in what you see.

"I have no interest in telling you what to think. And I have no interest in offering a representation that has no mystery, no journey for an audience to go on. Instead, a voice is always trying to sing through the dark, or out of a loud noise.

"A movement isn't quite clear, it is struggling to be born. And it is, I know, a challenge for an audience to go through that kind of struggle too. But for me, it's important to meet with something you don't know.

"Therefore, I want to show you something you don't know - I want to activate the space, so as it permits access to other perceptions, allows audiences to imagine new beginnings or new ways of being."

With this in mind, Ponifasio does not shackle himself to Western ideas of theatre or dance. And indeed many of the performers in his company - called Mau, a Samoan word that carries the double meaning of revolution and bearing witness to the truth - do not have a background in conventional drama or dance training.

What they do have, however, is a practical understanding of ceremonial: how elements of ritual - chants, slow processionals, a feel for the communion of all living things - can offer a transformative experience.

They make a theatre into a sacred space where the invitation is to transcend the marketplace, the stock exchange, the politics at home and the Government's policy abroad - and instead, contemplate what it means to exist, to have choices, to have self-determination. To think and feel "I am"...

"People are becoming more anti-institutions of religion," says Ponifasio. "But I think, even in our consumer society, people are seeking some kind of spiritual connection. Art - like performance or theatre - can help you rehabilitate your ideas, perhaps bring you to a new set of images or beliefs. Help your spirit to breathe, and be healthy. And that's a need we all have, whether we believe in God or not.

"Our spirit, really, is in how we relate with people. Our relationship with our families, our communities - the environment we share with nature - that's based on 'spirit'. It's not a scientific formula, it's not a product you buy off the shelf. But it can be a struggle to find that for yourself."

It was the struggle that New Zealand artist Colin McCahon had with life - with his religious faith, his lack of recognition within the wider art community, and with alcohol - that drew Ponifasio to take the title of I AM from McCahon's powerful (and controversial) canvas, Victory over death 2. Heiner Muller and Antonin Artaud also figured in Ponifasio's thinking.

But it was McCahon's striving to find a greater truth than the dispiriting circumstances that stalked his daily life that fed significantly into Ponifasio's vision of how we need to turn our thoughts, our spirit, towards horizons well beyond getting and spending, or accepting broken systems. Maybe even sacrificing self-interest and techno-cushioned comfort zones so as future generations have the chance of a better world.

That is the sacrifice thousands from the tiny islands of the Pacific Ocean made for the future of countries not their own.

And if I AM can be read as a scream of defiant existence, of survival against onslaughts on mind and spirit, then - in keeping with the questions that Ponifasio creates in his work - I AM can be an open-ended provocation. What, exactly are we, whose existence was fought for by regiments of men from the other side of the world.

I AM is at the Playhouse, August 16 and 17.

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