Oct 31, 2023

Review of UPU

Review by Jo Morris, originally published via Theatreview

In Samoan ‘upu’ means ‘word’, and in Upu, words from across Oceania are gathered and celebrated. It’s a testament to the vibrancy, energy and beauty of poetry from the region.

Poets featured: Tusiata Avia , Audrey Brown-Pereira, Ben Brown, Jaqueline Carter, Sia Figiel, Konai Helu Thaman, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Briar Grace-Smith, Simone Kaho, Daren Kamali, Celestine Kulagoe, Albert Leomala, Grace Mera Molisa, Karlo Mila, John Pule, Lyz Soto, Leilani Tamu, Apirana Taylor, Tayi Tibble, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Hone Tuwhare, Brandy Nālani McDougall, Maualaivao Albert Wendt, Noʻu Revilla & Craig Santos Perez.

The poems demonstrate both the unique voices of the poets and a shared vision, as they address colonisation, family, climate change, love, sex, religion, power and tourists. It’s a powerful mix of established and new voices. Through Iwashita-Taylor’s selection and arrangement, the poems – and poets – acquire fresh meanings, talking to each other. There’s a common awareness of the natural world, but an intriguing sense of a shifting kaleidoscope as our attention is drawn to different flora and fauna across the region.

Actors: Maiava Nathaniel Lees, Mia Blake, Ana Corbett, Shadon Meredith, James Maeva, Nicola Kawana and Gaby Solomona.

Upu is also a testament to the transformative power of performance. While the concept is exciting, it’s realised through the passion and power of the actors; how they work to shift the poetic forms on a page to a fully realised experience. Individually, each actor is compelling and committed. Together, they make the words take flight, building tension in an almost cinematic way through layering voices, choreographed movements, and a fluid shifting from single voices to many and back.

There are standout moments in both the single and multi-voiced modes. In Tusiata Avia’s ‘This is a Photo of My House’, a pulled-back delivery allowS the quiet tragedy of the words themselves to speak, while collective voices make Sia Figel’s ‘Songs of the fat brown woman’ speak for more women than just the subject of the poem.

Set design, sound and lighting are all impressive. A deceptively simple set of three ramps facing forwards and back, allow impressive variations in form and pace – in a way, functioning like the white space on the page of the original poems. Natural sounds – waves, birdsong – combine with percussive ones to ground the performances, while the lighting is thoughtful and subtle.

There’s an almost tangible sense of connection in this work – between actors, poems, cultures, ideas and beliefs – all sharing a connection with the Oceanic space. The ordering of the works helps create a sense of progression – that the audience is on a voyage of discovery.

A notable omission is the lack of acknowledgement, during the performance or in the programme notes, of the poets whose works are included. It’s a jarring gap: carefully considered, no doubt, but inexplicable to the outsider. If we are on a voyage, it feels like the waka itself is being undervalued. 

Nonetheless, the words themselves have a chance to shine, and every aspect of the performance honours them. Upu is a spectacular showcase for Oceanic talents, voices and perspectives.

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