REVIEW: Waves (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Nathan Joe

Alice Mary Cooper's Waves

[Lady in the Water]

Inspired by her own love of swimming, and developed from an earlier short story, Alice Mary Cooper’s Waves is a piece of historical fiction that disguises itself as a true story. In fact, the presentation of the story was told so earnestly I didn’t realise the full extent of what was made up until I read the programme afterwards. An impressive feat in itself.

Staged simply with a chair, a table and a few items, Cooper tells us the story of Elizabeth Moncello and her extraordinary life as a pioneering female swimmer. It begins with their first meeting at Edinburgh hospice with Cooper as a caregiver. Then it traces back to Elizabeth’s formative years growing up in Australia’s Gabo Island in the 1930s. At the foreground of the story is the relationship between Elizabeth and the sea. Through the eyes of a child, we explore mankind’s eternal struggle to understand mother nature. Moments of heartbreaking tragedy are succeeded by the desperate need to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Though we don’t get to see much of Elizabeth’s childhood outside of the water, her self-education in swimming is mesmerising to watch, whether she’s swimming with the fishes or pretending to be a dolphin.  This is both the coming of age story of a young girl and the underdog story of an unorthodox swimmer.

With the help of director Gill Robertson, Cooper balances her unfussy delivery with bursts of unexpected theatricality, seamlessly flowing between timelines and shifting between characters.  While the limitations of the stage are obvious when trying to convey something as physical as swimming, the minimalism of the set gives Cooper room to open up our imaginations, building a world simply with her movements and the lighting. Music also serves as a transportive tool taking us to the period setting of the 30s Australia with the swelling violin strings and piano. And aquatic soundscapes are employed to great effect, but never overused. Not to mention a more modern, though unexpected, moment guided by the famous Rocky soundtrack.

The narrative unfolds at an unhurried pace, focusing on little moments rather than major conflicts, but it never feels long at around 50-minutes. It is told in an economical and unpretentious manner, the humour born naturally from the observations of young Elizabeth, older Elizabeth or Cooper herself. And while rarely laugh-out-loud funny, you’ll catch yourself smiling alongside the show. It’s only a shame that the play seems to finish too soon, leaving so much of Elizabeth’s life unexplored, though many will be satisfied with the appropriately poignant coda.

Excluding a couple of darker (but not gratuitous) moments in the story, Waves is easy to recommend to children and adults alike. While I can’t help feeling a little cheated by the liberties taken with the show’s rewriting of history, it also reminds us of the power and inherently fluid nature of fiction. Don’t watch the show to learn something new. Watch it to feel inspired. This unassuming story might feel like a light work, but it’s not an empty one.

Waves is presented in association with Catherine Wheels Theatre Company and Imaginate Festival and plays at Q Loft until 13 March. Details see Auckland Arts Festival

SEE ALSO: review by Raewyn Whyte

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