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I AM | Edinburgh International Festival 2014

As an artist (both as a director and a writer) one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever been given was by Lemi Ponifasio himself: “Stop trying to understand – just imagine.”

The latest work from New Zealand based company MAU requires you to do just that – IMAGINE.

Spearheaded by Ponifasio, artist and activist, I AM is a poetic and visceral invocation that requires, no actually demands, that you relinquish the cerebral demands for comprehension and simply immerse yourself in a complete saturation of the senses.

Lemi’s advice becomes clear as I settle into my seat for the company’s debut UK performance at the Edinburgh International Festival. To imagine is to activate the space; indeed the universe that Ponifasio creates is one where expectations of theatre, dance, poetry and prayer are intricately woven together to create a response that transcends expectations of what could be – or should be – and instead engages with what endures after the tragedy.

The production begins not with the conventional dimming of the lights but when the audience notices, takes heed, of a single man in military uniform walking along the elevated edge of a diagonal surface. Beneath him boxes shrouded in black moved slowly, painfully, and as they push across the massive stage he opens his spirit unto the heavens and sings.

I AM isn’t an attempt to be grandiose or bombastic but it does channel, unequivocally, the epic. It brings a depth of ritual in its true performative context into the theatre – the politics are our own to impose (or not) as we please.

Indeed it is tempting to draw upon references that seem obvious: the visual inscription of the words I AM from New Zealand artist Colin McCahon’s Victory over Death from the 1970s; the work of German director Heiner Muller particularly in his production of Die Hamletmaschine; the work from French playwright Antonin Artaud and of course Samoan song cycles and prayers.

But when the programme notes have been thumbed through, the crackling of cough lollies has desisted and chairs creak into a position of comfort, none of those references matter in the moment. They are almost forgotten. What is vividly recalled are the corridors of light. Exquisite in its blinkered moments a chorus of shadows flits across the stage highlighting the illusive black and white realities of our existence, a call unto the gods is made in Samoan, and a woman begins a karakia in Maori. These are our cries for recognition, we are here.

And then stark, naked, bodies on stage. A crucifixion. Smashed eggs drip slowly down. The embryo and the Prophet both hang upon the massive canvas of our own unfolding. A red red flower stuffed into the mouth of a woman. Confronting, intoxicating, she is everything we have despised and yet we love love love her; our eyes cannot tear themselves away from this wet and bloody stoning.

With no interval the performance demands that you take as much or as little notice of the world that is manifest before you. Devastation, degradation and complete disenchantment – this is the legacy of the Great War. This is a testimony to the unheard voices and the many bodies that are not noticed. And yet there is hope.

18 dancers breathe life into this space. Quick applause. Light movements. Slow heavy and yet highly nuanced and sculpted movement create a visual ecology of understanding and relationships. The stage floods. Cinematic and yet cleansing. Sublime, not because of the moment itself but for the horror that was inscribed before.

I AM is not a challenge to institutionalism or western orthodoxy. It is a testament to recognising our humanity; an opportunity to have an encounter that transgresses the boundaries of what we know – and more importantly think we know.

It is inevitably, whether you care to believe or not, a conversation with the gods.

#lemiponifasio #edinburgh #theatre #mau