REVIEW: a mixtape for maladies (Auckland Arts Festival)

Review by Ben Shand-Clennell

Photo by Jinki Cambronero

 a mixtape for maladies is a poignant yet entertaining new work by Ahi Karunaharan depicting a family’s experience of unrest in Sri Lanka. 

Presented as a ‘performed reading’ in the Auckland Arts Festival, the event begins with each of the performers introducing themselves and giving a brief description of their background. It is highlighted that in a perfect world, a mixtape for maladies would be performed by a cast of Sri Lankan descent, but instead, as performers of South Asian descent, they wish to do their best to bring other South Asian stories to life, as truthfully as possible. This is a great touch, and a heart-warming context for the performance to sit within.

The narrative is split between a mother and son, narrating from present-day Aotearoa, and the mother’s family in mid-to late-20th-Century Sri Lanka. The play itself revolves around the remembering and the contemporaneous embodying of the music of a 17-track mixtape – the ‘only remnant of the past’. The narrator duo, with one character clueless and the other very knowledgeable, is a creative means of introducing the 21st-Century Aotearoa audience to a history and culture that they may be unfamiliar with. 

All the performers do a spectacular job of bringing the characters of the play to life. This is a particularly impressive feat given they had only one week to prepare. The actors who were tasked with playing more than one role should be commended for the skilful way in which they portray these different characters. 

Ahi Karunaharan’s writing provides a beautifully realised world for the performers to build on and inhabit. The characters are impressively delineated, with motivations and personalities which quickly set them apart, and to which the characters stay true to throughout. Karunaharan does a great job of showing the macroclimate by exploring the way this intersects with the central family. The situations explored are achingly human and provide an excellent medium for the play’s exploration of Sri Lanka’s past.

The musical performances are a delight. The play places huge significance on music and memory, and it is amazing to see the six-piece band bring the mixtape to life. The musicians give a rousing and polished performance, which provides cohesion to the play as a whole – linking the other performative aspects, and providing a well-curated and emotive heft to the moments they inhabit. The musical performances are well-utilised; effectively conveying mood and meaning, despite any language barrier. It will be interesting to see the evolution of the interplay and transitions between the musicians, players and dancers, in later iterations of the play.

Presented in partnership with Auckland Theatre Company, the performance definitely benefits from the large stage at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, given the large number of performers onstage – 15 in total. It is a shame that there is no longer a Literary Unit at Auckland Theatre Company, as this would be the perfect vessel for the play’s progression.

 a mixtape for maladies is already a very enjoyable and thought-provoking piece, which inventively tells a very intriguing and necessary story. All creatives involved should be very proud of the earnest and compelling story they have delivered. The next season is eagerly awaited.

 a mixtape for maladies plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 25th of March 3pm.

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