Indian Ink's new play, Kiss the Fish, turns to Bali to tell a tale of romance and eco-tourism on a tropical island. Dionne Christian reports

Walt Disney World, the Everglades, the Kennedy Space Centre and Fort Lauderdale Beach - when it comes to attractions in the sunshine state of Florida there are plenty to tempt a tourist, but Indian Ink's Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis ignored them all.

By night they staged Guru of Chai, which toured the United States this year, thanks to a signing with a top American agent; by day they stayed in their hotel where the walls of their rooms were covered in Post-it jottings about their next show, Kiss the Fish.

The play takes the theatre company, which has been running for 16 years, in a subtle new direction. While they are still using a trademark blend of masks and music, comedy and pathos to tell stories, this time the masks are Balinese and the musical elements include traditional Balinese dance and a song by an incarnation of rock-star Freddie Mercury.

The duo knew from the outset they didn't want to make another solo show similar to their award-winning 1997 Krishnan's Dairy or the more recent Guru of Chai. They also wanted to tell a more complex story, pulling in their own Southeast Asian travel and work experiences, thwarted regional tourism developments, the writings of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, East v West relations, romance, the hopes each generation has for its children and even rampaging monkeys - all set to a score by musical collaborator Dave Ward.


Lewis says the desire to encompass these disparate elements made it a more difficult story to tell than anything else the company has worked on. Rajan agrees, saying it involved a greater level of collaboration during the writing.

"Being in the United States gave us some space and distance and helped give us a different perspective," he says. "We've been thinking about this story for two years and in that time you accumulate so much material and it all becomes special - your baby - and there are great lines that you love; characters you want, but you have to clear away the clutter."

They started with masks from Bali where the duo studied traditional mask theatre. The Balinese stock character masks were painstakingly and lovingly carved by respected mask-makers Wayan and Kodi Tangguh.

The next step was to discover which of the masks - Lewis describes them as cartoonish - would fit into the story and whether they would need others.

"One of the biggest risks for us with this show is how well the masks will work because they are Balinese stock characters reinvented for our story, which is for a New Zealand audience, but so far the feedback has been positive," says Lewis. "People seem to really enjoy the characters and the theatricality of the masks."

Just as the masks had to fit the story, the four actors bringing 10 characters (and a handful of monkeys) to life had to be able to work with them. Workshop-style auditions were held and accomplished actors Nisha Madhan, Julia Croft and James Roque were assembled to work with Rajan under Lewis' direction.

Nisha Madhan says the prospect of working with the masks - something she hasn't explored before - was exciting and meant emphasising vocal and physical skills. She plays two characters: tough-as-boots Lakshmi and the more vulnerable and romantic Daisy.

"More and more, I think less about the specifics of each character and focus instead on the archetypes they represent and their place in the world," she says. "It's more important for me to have a big picture view when I perform. For example, I love Daisy's romantic side and I love to indulge in the romance with her so I think about dragging all the great romantic characters on stage with me."

Born in Qatar, raised partly in India and educated at boarding school in the Himalayas before arriving in New Zealand at the age of 13, it could be said that Madhan has a cosmopolitan background which fits nicely with the story told in Kiss the Fish.

Set on Karukam Island, supposedly a tropical paradise, man-child Sidu can't wait to escape. Trapped in a life that is too slow, he yearns to be the next Freddie Mercury. When an eco-resort being built on the island threatens his family's traditional way of life it's up to him to decide the fate of the whole island, its people and ultimately his own destiny.

Lewis sees the story as one for our times, with its strong emphasis on environmental matters and traditional lifestyles. He says it made him think long and hard about the world we are bequeathing to our children.

"Every generation likes to think it will leave things in better shape, but I'm not sure that's necessarily going to happen in future."

But he and Rajan are quick to emphasise that Indian Ink prefers the "serious laugh" to didactic drama. That's one of the reasons they reckon their shows, and the company itself, endures.

But Rajan says he doesn't take anything for granted.

"I feel we've been incredibly blessed and I do keep waiting for it all to crumble. I think it's important to be open to new ideas and experiences because when you start fixating on making the next work, that's when the trouble starts.

"If you look after your soul, I think that shows in the soul of the work."

What: Kiss the Fish
Where and when: Q Theatre, September 14-October 5