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Theatre Review: The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward

Set sometime this century, O Le Pepelo, Le Gaoi, Ma Le Pala’ai |The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward is the story of a family in a state of turmoil. Pili Sa Tauilevā (Semi Felipo) is the ageing chief of a Samoan village called Moa. Clinging to the traditional ways of his people, Pili rules the village in an autocratic manner and ignores the growing demands for democratic local government. Despite a sudden illness he refuses to choose a successor for his chiefdom which upsets his ambitious but inept son Matagi (Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson) and his daughter Vailoloto (Ana Corbett). 

Over the course of the story, members of the family including his wife and daughter in law as well as opportunistic locals try and influence and out manoeuvre Pili and this sets off a series of schemes and intrigues. 

At the heart of the play is the tension caused by the accumulation of power and money and the ethics of doing business. People may claim they are sticking to tradition, while others are touting for change, but beneath all of that is a lust for control, and the accumulation of wealth through the exploitation of others. Corruption leads to destruction, and not even innocent players are immune to the fallout.

What I loved about this play is it had an epic feel to it. In some ways it was a family drama set in a small village, yet the issues and the passions are universal. There was a lyricism to the story telling, particularly in the poetic observations (mostly in Samoan) by Vaofefe the village ‘idiot’ (Jesme Fa’auuga) who gave a stunning performance as a sort of ‘everyman’ narrator. 

Ultimately it was the casting that made this story so compelling. 

Every character, whether they be a power broker or a humble servant, had a unique personality and strength because each actor intrinsically understood the person they were portraying. All of them had at least one moment where the audience could see into the soul of their character and that was mesmerising. 

Everyone in this production shone, but I want to acknowledge Semu Filipo and his interpretation of Pili. His was a masterful delivery that created an unforgettable almost Shakespearean tragic figure wracked by mercurial moods and plenty of hypocrisy. 

My one mild criticism of the play is the pacing of act one. The second act, after interval, seemed tighter, more dramatic, and funnier than the first.  As an example, there was one scene after the interval in which several characters went searching at night for a ‘sacred fish,’ in a way that was stylised, extremely funny, and almost a parody. It worked really well, and provided a wonderful contrast to some of the deeply emotional and raw scenes that followed. That juxtaposition made great theatre. In act one, those elements were there, but not quite as sharp.

This is a minor point though because O Le Pepelo, Le Gaoi, Ma Le Pala’ai is an epic piece of theatre impeccably performed, funny, and thought provoking. 

O Le Pepelo, Le Gaoi, Ma Le Pala’ai

The Liar, the Thief, and the Coward

5 – 23 March 2024  ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland 

Bookings and information 

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