'2020' is Wan Smolbag's best play yet

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The Village Explainer
'2020' is Wan Smolbag's best play yet
By Dan McGarry • Issue #45 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.
TW: discusses gender based violence and abuse

Some of the cast of 2020, Wan Smolbag Theatre's newest play
Some of the cast of 2020, Wan Smolbag Theatre's newest play
It’s tricky to say that ‘2020’ is Wan Smolbag Theatre‘s best play yet. That’s because it might create the impression that it’s their first really good play, that it’s somehow taken 32 years for this unique troupe to hit its stride. And neither of those is remotely true.
So let me say it like this:
Having watched them at work for nigh on two decades now, I walk into most Wan Smolbag shows knowing what I’m going to see. And every time, I walk out of them thrilled to have been wrong. Again.
But I’ve never been so wrong about a play as I was about '2020’.
The choice of title is a hint. ‘2020’ is stark, plainspoken, blunt, and unadorned. It leaves you heartbroken, speechless and torn by the knowledge that—just like the year—it’s over, but is anything really better?
I had the privilege of joining the cast members’ families at a dress rehearsal. We’ve all seen countless shows, and know their creators personally. If there was ever a less shock-able audience, I’ve never seen one.
But after the last line was delivered and the lights came up, there was a pause. For a moment, the entire audience struggled to breathe. When people talk about gut-punch drama, this is what they mean.
The script, as always, was written by Jo Dorras, and the production was directed by Peter Walker.
The couple use a few Brechtian tropes in most of their shows. Cast members act as chorus, and flit between characters from scene to scene. They burst into song, they dance, they form tableaux with quicksilver ease. And then they drop into dialogue so naturalistic it could be lifted from a Scorsese film—if Scorsese spoke Bislama. And he was having a particularly good day.
The show is raucous, percussive, teetering on the brink of anarchy. It’s overshadowed by unrelenting hardship, but punctuated by humour, music and song. And still, it has moments of unalloyed beauty.
It is, in other words, a play about life in Vanuatu in the year 2020.
From the show's programme
From the show's programme
The story centres around Esta, played by Virana David. A hard-working, no bullshit woman, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and that includes her charming, layabout husband Donald, brought to life by Michael Maki.
Maki plays his role with an easy charm reminiscent of a ‘Streetcar’-era Brando. He’s big, he’s sincere, and he’s simple. He’s a lady killer when he wants to be, and a wife-abuser when he doesn’t. Mostly, he’s just along for the ride.
He’s a man, not a monster. We’ve all met him, and we’ve all liked him. For many men here, we’ve all been him.
Regina is played by Rexnet Miranda. This is a breakout role for her, her first opportunity to carry a show on her shoulders, and she does it with ebullience, beauty and poignancy.
Regina and Esta are waitresses at a Port Vila cafe. Money is tight, but life is good, as long as the customers don’t get too handsy. In her first scene, Regina’s wearing her hair with a bang down, and we all know what that means.
I don’t know anyone here who hasn’t seen a co-worker with a black eye, or worse.
If that moment of revelation takes you aback, then you need to brace yourself. There’s a reason the show is not recommended for children under 13.
Wan Smolbag have never flinched when telling stories of physical or sexual abuse. They’ve repeatedly depicted it onstage, because frankly you can’t write a story about Vanuatu society without including incidents of violence and abuse.
(And laughter, and joy, and bawdy humour, hilarity and song. But also cruelty. Also abuse.)
It’s hard to say why this play is different, but it is. Ni Vanuatu audiences generally laugh nervously when they see portrayals of violence.
This time, no one did. It may have been the staging, which was more confronting. It may have been the script, which was tighter, more starkly focused than ever.
It certainly was Ms Miranda, whose terror as she’s dragged away is palpable. And Ms David, in her thunderous, impotent fury at the idle onlookers.
And equally, it was the men, whose deeply sensitive portrayals of such deeply insensitive moments forces us to recognise that this isn’t poster art. It’s real, and it’s right here.
The most under-appreciated person onstage that night was Patrick Atel, playing the role of Regina’s partner Michel. If he weren’t so utterly convincing as a troubled man whose entire emotional toolkit is a wrecking ball, none of us would care.
One of the benefits of a professional ensemble troupe is the depth of talent in the cast. There is not one among them who couldn’t carry a play on their back if they’re asked to. In fact, nearly every single one of them has done so. This richness gives life to the old adage that there are no small parts, only small actors.
Wan Smolbag is populated by giants.
An aside: If there were ever an argument against North America’s journeyman approach to acting talent, this is it. These actors are all on salary year-round. They play all types, all ages, and do so with consistent skill. They compose the music, help with the lights, set and costumes, and they give themselves to the smallest and largest roles with equal commitment. It’s a dynamic you have to see to believe.
Rexnet Miranda as Regina
Rexnet Miranda as Regina
Michael Maki and Virana David as Donald and Esta
Michael Maki and Virana David as Donald and Esta
Patrick Atel as Michel
Patrick Atel as Michel
So what makes ‘2020’ Wan Smolbag’s best play yet?
It’s hard to say.
They do so many things exactly as they have before. They apply the same skill, commitment and professionalism. The same intelligence, warmth and compassion. The same puckish humour. The same bravura.
I suspect it’s what there’s less of. There’s less clever allusion, less tact, less patience. The action, like the year, like the country itself, keeps reaching for joy, and keeps falling back into bitter reality.
And like the year, it goes on and on. That’s not a jibe. It is the longest play they’ve produced in years, but it’s not the length that makes it unrelenting.
In fact, when we suddenly realise we’ve come to the end, it’s almost too much to take. Just like Esta, we don’t want it to end. We desperately, futilely want to go back to the days of freedom and trivial concerns. We all want one more jubilant cry of ‘Yumi 40!’
But, like Esta, we are forced to look past the make-believe, to the reality of another year like the last, but with less optimism, fewer options, and even greater challenges ahead.
‘2020’ opened Saturday. Check out Wan Smolbag’s Facebook page for ticket sale dates and locations, and for showtimes. This show is not for children under 13. Content warning: graphic depictions of violence, emotional and physical abuse.
The cast of 2020
The cast of 2020
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Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu