Harsh realities of modern life in the Pacific are portrayed in a stunning stage work, writes Dionne Christian

How does a wordless theatrical production say so much and so clearly?

Fifteen months ago, 100 or so invited guests gathered at the Herald Theatre to watch a work-in-progress showing of Marama.

Produced by Wellington-based The Conch, Marama tells a story that left members of that first "test audience" spellbound and shocked in equal measure. The enchantment came from the languid and elegant blend of theatre, dance, puppetry and music but the inspiration behind it was a horrible surprise to many.

At its heart, Marama is "a powerful call from women of the Pacific", the voices of a vanishing world", about the devastating effects of deforestation. It is all the more powerful because it is about logging - much of it unregulated - in our own neighbourhood, the Pacific.


Post-show, Solomon Islanders now resident in New Zealand stood and, holding back tears, shared stories of how they had seen land around their home villages stripped bare, much-loved local rivers and streams disappearing and the loss of forest sounds. Composer Gareth Farr, who wrote the music, confessed that, like many in the audience, news about the scale of logging in the Pacific was a complete surprise to him.

Thanks to Marama, it could well become more of a talking point.

The production has its official world premiere at the Auckland Arts Festival but, next week, scenes from it will be performed at Victoria University's first climate change conference. In the Eye of the Storm, Pacific Climate Change Conference features a range of speakers including His Excellency Anote Tong, president of the Republic of Kiribati, Australia's pre-eminent climate change scientist Professor Will Steffen and Dayle Takitimu, indigenous rights and environmental lawyer.

The Conch co-founder and artistic director Nina Nawalowalo says Marama came about because she wanted to contribute to positive change in the Pacific. Three years ago, The Conch joined with the Solomon Islands Planned Parenthood Association and the British Council for the Conchus - Stages of Change theatre workshop programme.

A ground-breaking collaboration, it aimed to use theatre to reduce violence against women and increase their participation in society. The project included establishing a national Women's Theatre Company and touring the main islands with a performance work. Radio scripts were also created for broadcast.

Nawalowalo recalls being moved by "the wild beauty" of native forests and happy to see vast tracts of it still survive, but disturbed by the encroachment of logging.

This disquiet was added to by the women themselves who spoke about the impact environmental destruction and fears about it were having on communities. So the idea for Marama was born and Nawalowalo assembled a creative team to stage the story. The team now includes Farr, award-winning Italian lighting designer Fabiana Piccioli, set designers Nicole Cosgrove (original production) and John Verryt and costume designer Seraphina Tausilia.

Since its first showing, Marama has evolved to feature the stories of five women from five parts of the Pacific - all high-born women from their respective indigenous cultures - united by a common cause. On stage, they wear traditional dress and sing customary songs but while there's a lot of sound - Farr's contemporary score woven with waiata and chanting - it remains wordless. Nawalowalo says the biggest challenge was telling the story visually but she wanted to do so to focus attention on the beauty of the forest and the cultures we stand to lose if they are destroyed.

"I want the audience to feel the beauty and uniqueness of the forest; it's a unique opportunity to look into something that's not usually on the stage and a unique opportunity to see Pacific women on stage together. There's a strong message in this work; it's good to reflect on where we are now. I hope that by making something and presenting it, it brings discussion and awareness. It's what I can offer as a contribution."




, Auckland Arts Festival

Where and when:

Q Theatre, March 2-6