Review by Lucy Lucas
Spanning spoken word, physical theatre, dance, live music, and projection, Meremere is a multidisciplinary smorgasbord of soulful storytelling from a performer at the height of his powers.
The true core of Meremere is Rodney Bell’s voice. His autonomy over his own story and his certainty in sharing it with us is evident from the first moment, in which we hear his voice before we see him. Softly spoken but assured, Bell begins recounting the story of a Meremere (Māori tool) carved for a family member. Surrounded by sawdust and mess he comes to the realisation that maybe the original wood is more beautiful than any sculpted, honed artwork imaginable. This is the essential throughline of this epic, life-spanning work: surrender to and revel in the messy, the unfinished and the untamed for the way things have been created is often their most beautiful form.
The performance starts with a waerea, a protective incantation to clear the space for Bell’s work, sung with incredible power and ease by Tūī Matira Ranapiri-Ransfield. Not speaking Māori myself this part of the performance was primarily energetic and aural, however the intention to cleanse the space and position Māori culture and heritage as being an essential piece of Bell’s journey was clear. One of the few Māori words I do know is whanau – family, and this was repeated many times throughout the waerea, rightly fore-shadowing that this production would bring these performers and their audience closer together.
The arc of Bell’s story begins at the moment he found himself, despite being a professional dancer with an international career, living rough on the streets of San Francisco, far away from his home of Aotearoa. He weaves tales of halfway houses and busking for cash, attending awards ceremonies and a friendship with a one-legged seagull. Bell has an easy charm as he guides us through what often feels like a journal or scrap book come to life: the stories are non-linear and presented as vignettes, with the strong sense that there are so many more where those came from.
The apex of the piece is a spectacular duet between Bell and guest dancer Brydie Colquhoun. She joins him from the audience, in a moment that appears genuinely spontaneous, and makes you feel as though she is dancing for you – by proxy allowing you to finally and literally connect with this man who has bared himself so intimately for the past half hour. This is also where we see Bell in full flow and majesty as a dancer, his vulnerability and strength able to exist alongside one another in perfect harmony. He is a powerfully dynamic performer, conveying a sense of strength and surety in every movement, in every breath. For the able-bodied audience this is a powerful antidote to the stereotypes of weakness and delicacy that pervade mainstream discussion of disabled bodies. When we later see footage of his past aerial duets and extensive routines there is also a sense of wonder at the power of such a small taste of a clearly illustrious career.
A truly multidisciplinary work, Bell’s storytelling is supported by a sublime creative team.
Musician Jolyon Mulholland is a powerful presence in the space. Layering live vocals over a series of haunting and evocative soundscapes, his musical elements blend seamlessly with Bell’s stories into an easy conversation that becomes much more than accompaniment. The flawless intersection of lighting, AV and set design complements and elevates Bell’s voice and movement into a masterful feast of storytelling. These production elements have been deeply integrated into the work, in some instances Bell’s movement controls his world; he builds and moves, creates, and destroys. In others we see flashes of real landscapes and moments and glimpse memories of dances, people and places.
This work is being presented as part of the 2022 Alter State festival (full program available through the Arts Centre website), a celebration of disability, creativity, and culture. At the beginning of the show, we are taken through the options available to us to increase accessibility for all patrons. The extensive nature of this intro was a healthy reminder of how many obstacles our society, and particularly western theatre tradition, has placed in the path of people with disabilities. All of the steps taken to create access were simple and could be included in most, if not all, other productions (especially those on Melbourne’s mainstream stages). All performances of Meremere are AUSLAN interpreted and have audio description and tactile tours available. All performances are also relaxed performances, designed to be a safer environment for audience members with sensory sensitivities and to make the social rules around theatre attendance more flexible for patrons with a wide range of disabilities.
A warm and moving work of staggering heart, Meremere has the core message that there is beauty in the messy, the organic and the unfinished; it will leave you feeling full and glad you got the chance to be a part, even for one night, of Rodney Bell’s whanau.