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Auckland Arts Festival: I Am - review

Mar 7, 2015 Theatre

I Am
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

There are so many extraordinary images. Always beautiful, often disturbing, sometimes horrifying. Black-clad people glide in lines across the stage, their precision so exact you might swear they’re on a conveyor belt. A woman brandishes a musket as a taiaha. Two near-naked men wrestle: Pakeha and Samoan, their big strong bodies straining fiercely. A man walks as an animal on all fours. A fully naked man writhes in slime from broken eggs. A woman with shaven head is strangled, then forced to sit as a dozen others on stage take turns to drop flowers in her lap and spit gouts of blood over her body. And there are great soaring streams of oratory.

Lemi Ponifasio’s show I Am is the Auckland Arts Festival’s big, deep show, the artistic heart of the whole programme, and if you’re interested in lyrical beauty, fearsome power, big aesthetic statements, you should get along. There’s just one more performance, tonight.

I Am is dedicated to the memory of the 20 million people who died during World War One, and is as determined a meditation on the pitiful horror of war as you’ll find anywhere. The experience is visceral, and not just because there is blood. Ponifasio’s music jolts and pounds and courses through you, and Helen Todd’s lighting is so affecting – especially late in the piece when the entire stage appears as a waterfall, torrents washing down it towards the audience – that you feel intimately drawn into the action on the stage. The performers, all 24 of them, move with grace and humility, projecting loss and fear and sadness and, surprisingly often, anger.

I Am is also a kind of test. It’s long and despite those angry sequences it moves so steadily, at the pace of a slow walk, you start to wonder if Ponifasio has some perverse desire to make you suffer. I sat there in awe, but then I lost the awe. I was churned, startled, turned back on myself, thrilled, but sometime after the hour mark I found myself hoping desperately for someone to start running, pushing people about, fighting again, maybe even soaring through the air a little. None of that happened, and we all sat there for at least another 30 minutes.

In the programme notes, there’s talk of the show being a “conversation between God and the dead”. What does that mean? Does God really like to slow things down? Who decided that? Is the experience of war simply dread and hopelessness?

Can a performance succeed if there’s little dramatic shape and no journey to go on? I Am is a series of so many magnificent tableau. Less would have been more.

I Am: ASB Theatre to March 7.


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