Imagery, not action, is the strength of Lemi Ponifasio’s Requiem, an austere performance that features song, music and movement. Ponifasio, a high chief of Samoa, brings a starkly modern sensibility to bear on Samoan themes of death and remembrance. Though there are 22 performers, the overall impression – enhanced by the sparse rumbles on the soundtrack – is of isolation. Two pillars dominate the bare stage, which remains dimly lit throughout. Figures emerge from, and melt back into, the blackness: a man has his back to us, his muscled shoulder blades knotting and spreading in sinewy moth-wing patterns; another gulps faintly as he tilts his head upwards, as if hanging on to his own breath.
Some scenes evince a strange, unearthly beauty. A stooped old man, unaware of the ghostly figures gathering around him, taps his stick as if beating the frail but tenacious pulse of his own heart. A bird-like woman struts and twitches, uttering piercing shrieks like a wild night heron. Smoke rises from the bodies of four men, as if they were sticks of incense. A boy stands still while red liquid drips on to his shirt – a vivid stain of colour in an otherwise relentlessly black-and-white production.
There is a keen theatrical intelligence at work here, with moving intimations of the solitude of human existence and moments of dream-like intensity. For all that, Requiem is a piece you want to like more than you do. That is partly down to the cultural gap – the purposeful monotone chanting and delicate gesticulations seem to bear specific Samoan ritual or cultural significance, but we have no idea what this might be. And it isn’t helped by the unremitting snail’s pace of progression, which, over an unbroken hour and a half, can be hard to endure.