I AM

Choreography, concept, design and direction by Lemi Ponifasio

MAU

The Edinburgh Playhouse

From 16 August 2014 to 17 August 2014

Rating: ***

Review by Vera Liber

Slate grey landscape, shadowy figures moving across it in serried rows at a lacerating glacial pace, stunningly bleak images seen through a glass darkly, incantations in tongues we don’t understand, static crackle, the English Anthem (colonialism addressed) and religious writings on the wall.

New Zealand painter Colin McCahon’s (1919-1987) troubled I AM religious word paintings: to be more precise his Victory over death 2 and I applied my mind scrolling down the wall like a waterfall. Voiceover reading the words, but they are lost in the cacophony of sound.

Textured, layer on layer, Samoan choreographer and director of MAU, the company he founded in Auckland in 1995, Lemi Ponifasio creates a moving art installation, with references to Heinrich Muller’s Die Hamletmaschine and Antonin Artaud’s Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu.

Ponifasio is a seeker after truth, and that doesn’t come easy. MAU, the programme notes tell us, means ‘declaration of the truth of the matter, or revolution as a means of transformation’.

Grave images, earth’s birth and its destruction, metaphors of war and the war machine, downgraded humanity, and a naked Samoan Christ crucified on the Golgotha of McCahon’s canvas. Are the eggs thrown at this canvas meant to allude to the egg tempera of early religious paintings?

Reflections on the meaning of life, the folly of war, ‘a prayer for the living as for the dead’, I AM is an endurance test, a penance, forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.

Prayers and loud preacher incantations, whose ecstatic texts would have benefitted from surtitles rather than being tucked away in the programme notes, but we must rely on the sound of the songs and to my cloth ears it is not angelic, but angry shouting. Gestures do not always clarify, though the imagery is strong.

The most terrifying image is of a shaven-headed woman—the pitiless goddess of war or the duality of human nature—naked body clothed in diaphanous white, holding a rifle like the Madonna her child, white flowers at her feet, red flower in mouth, blood dripping from her head, the accumulation of spit from her acolytes, red spit and white flowers their offerings to her.

Commemorating World War I, I AM ‘is the moment of revelation when God unveils his silence with a voice of thunder to pray on the site of destruction.’ And the soundscape is tinnitus inducing.

All in black the large cast (I counted twenty-one) fulfill their roles with precision and quiet passion. Clap on command, body flip, respond to a shouting man bent backwards in parody of military bearing—we humans sure do make a lot of noise. Samoan slap dance and a male wrestling bout—is this Jacob wrestling with the angel or McCahon struggling with his demons?

An interminable loosely formed mélange of the impenetrable and the mesmerizing. Too long—almost two hours with no interval feels like being trapped in Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel.

As yet another man sings another long prayer, the theatre doors swing. Theatre and church, art and religion, can drive us to despair as well as celebrate the human in us. Ponifasio acquaints us with the despair.

Co-produced by Auckland Arts Festival, Festival d’Avignon, Ruhrtriennale-International Festival of the Arts and the Edinburgh International Festival, I AM is a commanding work, but are we ready for it yet?

A blinding light pierces the gloom. The Godhead? Enlightenment? Beautiful, austere, it lingers in the mind’s eye, but ‘elevate us’? I’m not sure. A spiritual experience or a numbing one—depends.

Ponifasio makes huge demands on the audience and some don’t last the course. But he expects that. He concedes I AM is a difficult work. It will speak to some and not others, and that is fine.