REVIEW: Tropical Love Birds (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Jess Macdonald

[Birds of a Feather don’t always flock together]

Tropical Love Birds, a new offering by theatre-maker Vela Manusaute, promises to “venture into the often-muted world of domestic violence, using the gravitas of humour, sound and threatre-loving-goodness to uplift courage…” As I enter the Māngere Arts Centre, I’m prepared for lots of laughter despite the hard-hitting theme.  

As house lights dim, three construction workers emerge from the darkness and fast, witty dialogue introduces us to Sani, the boss (James Maeva), Junior, his young nephew, (Rocky Manusaute) and Steve, Sani’s friend from way back (Aleni Tufuga). It is Valentine’s Day, and Sani has big plans for wife Sheena (Ilaisaane Green). They want to make a baby, and a one-sided phone call implies the passion is very much alive – much to the amusement of audience members. The following conversation between the three men meanders through misogyny but it is not malicious. It’s a forgivable part of Sani’s character – or so it seems.  

After Sani heads inside the site office, Junior spots a pretty wahine (Vaimaila Carolyn Urale Baker) lurking nearby. Before he can get a better look, she disappears and the drama-focused plot begins to unfold. For the next hour, it seems all traces of laughter are gone. 

The mystery woman returns, upset with Sani because he won’t take her calls. We learn that he met up with her romantically on multiple occasions, claimed to be single, yet says it meant nothing – because she is ‘nothing.’ Outside, wife Sheena overhears the whole thing. 

Sani becomes unlikeable in a few seconds as his character has a U-turn: the excited man, previously planning to be a father and exuding love, is now venomous and unable to express himself, with no interest in a child he has possibly fathered; the ex-Warriors superstar, who had the world at his feet, committed adultery and has a drinking problem. 

Threatened by the thought of losing Sheena, Sani strikes Sheena across the face and shows little remorse. When discussing the incident with Steve and Junior, Sani indicates Sheena is his property. Thankfully Sani’s friends provide different male perspectives on Sani’s behaviour, and the plot follows Sheena as she decides whether or not to take the advice of her friend (Petmal Lam) who also happens to be the manager of her music career. 

The production value is high quality, and the work of set designer Rachel Marlow is a highlight of the eighty-minute play. The stage is adorned with silver shale, and scattered road signs place us beside the construction site. Raised staging signifies a footpath, and a plastic corrugated wall depicts the site office within. Later, the office cleverly breaks apart to reveal a hidden stage space – the lover’s front room. Yet, at times, the staging intricacies threaten to surpass those within the plot. 

Despite intentions expressed in the show notes, representation of domestic violence does become ‘muted.’ Sheena’s choice to leave Sani is made easier, given her newly signed record contract. For audience members who have experienced domestic violence, the reality of leaving a partner – without financial security, or a new job or passion, or without family support – is entirely more difficult. To create more empathy, Sheena’s life-raft job could have been something obtainable instead of the promise of fame and fortune.  

This is where the burden of representation falls onto the shoulders of writer Vela Manusaute, whose male perspective appears to have limited him. Sadly, we never see the other woman again, and have no knowledge of who she is or what her story is. As a POC woman, I needed to know what happened to her. Her experience of abuse within a partnership was too similar to Sheena’s, yet her experience was left unexplored. 

Directed and dramaturged by Anapela Polata’ivao, the play’s themes were tackled by a compelling group of actors, with stand-out performances from the two leads Ilaisaane Green and James Maeva, but more could be done within the play to guarantee courage within the Pasifika community and beyond to leave abusive partners – and for those struggling with addiction and job loss to access the mental health support they need.    

Tropical Love Birds played Māngere Arts Centre 16-20 March, 2021. 

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