Love’s language

How to Spell Love (Anisa Nandula)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

September 17 – 20

‘Words are currency and definitions hold all the power’, writer/performer Anisa Nandaula tells the audience at the beginning of “How to Spell Love”, a compelling spoken word exploration of identity being presented as part Brisbane Festival’s 2020 program. It is an appropriate opening statement as the observation is central to the work’s examination of the collision of ideas and complexity of life’s simple moments.

At its core, the performance’s poetry is very well written, filled with literary devices and precise descriptive language to evoke our imaginations in its descriptions. However, the show is about more than just its linguistics. Performance poetry is about style as much as its words or message. And Nandaula’s verbal cadence and intonation exaggerates and compacts to bring light and shade to the history to be heard. Her signature critical style is bold and dynamic, shining an unapologetic light on the experience of an individual caught in the middle of the social and political intersections of modern life. As she takes us along on a confessional personal and political journey, she smoothly transitions through the show’s connective tissues, from talking about her own vulnerabilities, to reflecting on the larger conversations of the world and challenging audience members as individuals.   

Nandaula is a commanding performer. The passion of her personal storytelling of the experiences of being a young woman of colour growing up in Brisbane is as infectiously energetic in this work, as it was La Boite Theatre’s “The Neighbourhood”. Her distinctive examination of love, relationships and life as a migrant woman in contemporary Australia, is more than just performance poetry, however, combining as it does, powerful poetry with the free jazz of drummer/ percussionist Benjamin Shannon and the contemporary dance of Pru Wilson.

Allowing the audience to see, rather than just hear the performance in this way does much to enhance its effect, layering Nandaula’s words with visceral meaning. The work’s critical social and political commentary is enriched, for example, by Wilson’s abstract angular movements in accompaniment of Nandaula’s description of consumption and the duo’s animation in physicalising supermarket purchase imagery in a segment focussing on the commodification of the female body.

More powerful than poignant, “How to Spell Love” is considered and controlled in its construction, tapestried together to form a moving and accessible work of art when it could easily have been clichéd or self-indulgently alienating to its audience. Rather than pushing its agendas upon attendees, it allows audience members to draw out the key emotions of its spoken word through the addition of music and dance. Shannon’s percussion works well in accompaniment, even if earlier obscurely-curated sound effects sometimes seem more obtrusive than integral. Indeed, percussion helps in the creation of some powerful moments, and then, by its absence, the contemplative silences in which the work’s key messages are allowed to sit. The peaks and troughs that this creates add much to the show’s rhythm and repetition, moving the audience seamlessly through the revisited moods of its thematic arcs.

The appearance of a multimedia crossword of key ideas on the floor of the stage is a masterful device which provides the thematic borders of the show, between which the performance sits in consideration of the ideas of belonging. Despite the political tone of some of the projections, however, the personal perspective is what resonates most memorably, in sections like, ‘My Number is Still the Same’ in which Nandaula describes an abandoned heart consumed by love. Beyond her heartbreak, honesty and humour, love is what we are comfortingly left with on stage in final thought provocation, which is the show’s ultimate beauty.  

Photos – c/o Creative Futures Photography

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