Review: Sing to Me – a powerful love story where land meets sea

Erin Harrington reviews Taki Rua’s production of Sing to Me at Papa Hou, YMCA Building, on 25 May 2021.

Taki Rua’s beautiful touring production Sing to Me takes as its starting point the story of Pania of the Reef, placing it within a contemporary context that acknowledges present-day cultural exchanges, the pressures of relationships and parenthood, and the increasing physical and existential threat of climate change. It’s a moving portrait of a complicated relationship that is grounded in love, but that always feels as if it’s being thrown against the rocks. It intertwines the intimate with the epic.

Mild-mannered optometrist Ata and ferocious sea maiden Whetū meet along the shoreline and fall in love. It’s not a simple process, as even their initial, unexpected encounters are suffused with misunderstanding. If this were a rom-com the meet-cute would be odd; Ata’s shoreline litter, various bottles and bit of rubbish, are repurposed by Whetū into shiny treasures, which Ata collects, not realising their provenance. He hears her song though, as she swims through the reef, moving under the ramps that fill the stage space and the shimmering fabric that stands in for waves and water. He thinks that it’s for him – but maybe that’s just a matter of perception.

The first half of the play charts their loving and offbeat courtship, often to hilarious effect, while also outlining challenges. These include the pair’s difficulties in living in each other’s natural habitat, some striking differences in cultural practices and values, and the impact of the land-dwellers’ industrialised throwaway culture on the sea-folks’ way of life. It’s hard but they muddle through.

However, when Whetū falls pregnant, and a dear friend of Ata’s dies, these disjunctures are amplified. How will they parent this child of land and sea, and what brings meaning to their worlds and relationships? The play probes, to devastating effect, what happens when some differences cannot be reconciled, and when actions or intentions are misread. It considers, poignantly, how we might try to hold onto love and hope when emotional and physical worlds are on the brink of collapse.

Emma Katene, as Whetū, takes a role that could be played (poorly) as absurd and inhabits it with strength, wit and authority. She is powerful, proud and capricious, marrying the elevated – particularly through the sea-folk’s heightened register of speech – with the banality of the everyday. I particularly love her warrior garb, designed by Te Ura Hoskins; it looks a little like a superhero costume.

As Ata, Rutene Spooner offers a touching portrait of a big-hearted man wracked by anxiety and loneliness. He is at first buoyed by his new relationship, but becomes uncertain and increasingly desperate. Both are looking to find their place in the world – Whetū literally, as she moves between land and sea, and Ata as he navigates his dreams, friendships, and later the pressures of grief, isolation and new parenthood.

Te Aihe Butler – also the show’s sound designer – is a near-constant presence on stage as musician and narrator. He’s charming, filling bit parts, observing the relationship, and offering commentary. His disarmingly calm demeanour increasingly sits at odds with the rising tension to great effect.

Alex Lodge’s playful script defies genre, hopping between dance, music, song, comedy, fantasy, tragedy and romance. Miriama McDowell’s direction fills the worlds of land and sea with unexpected moments of levity: a sudden bossa nova dance break, Whetū’s first frantic experiences with public transport, the realities of an undersea event, the dreamy Beach Boys tracks that play throughout the break, and a gorgeous moment when the narrator helps lift the round light of the moon into the sky. She also honours the play’s engagement with weighty issues such as depression, suicide, and cultural dislocation. The production overall offers an idiosyncratic but wholly satisfying amalgam, for this complexity creates a rich space to poke around into some very uncomfortable places and emotional registers.

Sing To Me | Taki Rua
Whetū (Emma Katene) and Ata (Rutene Spooner); photo credit: Taki Rua

At one level the play very obviously riffs on the complexity of Māori and Pākehā relationships, sometimes to very funny effect, such as when Ata attempts clumsily to educate his land-dwelling co-workers about the richness and history of sea-dwelling cultures. Within some witty and pointed ‘odd couple’ comedy there’s commentary on how people who live at this point of contact may live in, and be excluded from, many worlds. The seashore setting and audiovisual elements, as designed by Jane Hakaraia, create a liminal, shifting space of ‘both’ and ‘and’. I also appreciate McDowell’s director’s note, which reflects on the production team’s lived experiences as parents and children within Māori-Pākeha families.

But the production uses these elements to look more broadly, too. It asks: how can we reconcile differences in background, ambition, desire, values, cosmologies, and expectations? How do we understand and view one another, whether we come from different worlds, or simply can’t see inside our nearest friends? There is a persistent message throughout – that we must listen to one another and the world around us, authentically and with humility – but a simultaneous acknowledgement that this is excruciatingly hard, and may come too far late. What then?

Instead the play forces us to reject easy forms of storytelling and tidy morals as we head towards a point of crisis. Throughout the play the tide, in the form of parachuting rigged along the floor of the stage, rolls in and out; clouds roll past the sun and the moon in the large video projection that acts as a backdrop; time marches on. We’re reminded, though, that we sail towards the place on the horizon where the sea meets the sky, when we must change direction and take action.

For all the subtle and overt nods towards stories such as The Little Mermaid and Pania of the Reef, now an intimate emotional and relationship-based catastrophe becomes braided into an enormous ecological one. Butler’s role as narrator becomes particularly important, as his attempts to fit the action within pre-existing story arcs fail. This speaks too to the play’s position in a growing body of climate change works that grapple with conflict at human and planetary scales. I am not sure if this sounds grim; it’s not, but it is an emotional ride. As the play slams towards its harrowing conclusion I find my heart’s in my throat, and I appreciate that it doesn’t let us take an easy way out. It takes some time afterwards to decompress.

Sing to Me is a timely production that is a credit to its cast and creative team, not just because of the strength of its production but because it forces us to sit within the mess. It’s a fractious space where hope and despair fight for space, and where even though there’s no comfort in straight resolution we must find ways to make choices, to build relationships, and to live with them, even if our best isn’t always good enough.

Sing to Me is currently touring New Zealand. It plays in Christchurch from 25-27 May, and next in Dunedin from 31 May – 1 June.

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