Octave Theatre’s latest offering is the rarely performed ‘Once on this Island’, a beautiful, tragic story exploring the power of Love and Death, set in the French Antilles.

‘Once on this Island’ was first staged in 1990, and is based on the novel ‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy. The book and lyrics were written by Lynn Ahrens and the exciting Caribbean influenced music was written by Stephen Flaherty. ‘Once on this Island’ tells the fable of an orphaned peasant girl Ti-Moune and her story of forbidden love between people from two different worlds. Her journey of discovery and self sacrifice is originally based on the tale of the Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Anderson.

The story is presented as a ‘play within a play’, as a cast of village storytellers attempt to calm a frightened young child, telling her the romantic tale of a peasant girl who saves a grand homme boy from death after a terrible accident and is influenced by the gods of Love and Death.

The Director, James Cutler, tells us that it is an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the term, with the story pushed forward by the narrators. “The characters in the show jump in and out of the action, sometimes commenting on it, sometimes enacting it… actors have equal stage time and when they are not the centre of the story they are supporting it in various ways”. James tells me that when he first read the script, he thought of a tribe of villagers sharing stories using dance, mime and music. “Here was this group of people, probably sitting around a fire under the glorious canopy of lush vegetation, thrilling each other with stories of adventure, comedy, pantomime and passion. Our production reflects this idea.”

The cast are quite ethnically diverse, with representatives from Greece, India, the Philippines, Trinidad and Australia. James says that the production team did not get caught up in trying to get a cast of the same skin tone, but based their selection on vocal quality and heart. “The themes of self discovery, sacrifice and healing are so universal that skin colour simply doesn’t matter…We needed our cast to have the right sound for the material, and we needed the story to burst from them in a genuine way.”

The rich, percussion heavy, afro-Caribbean music has provided an additional opportunity and challenge for the cast, as they all play instruments within the show. Musical Director Daniel Puckey has worked with the cast as they develop mastery of over 50 percussion instruments including drums, primitive shakers, rattles and rhythm sticks through to less common instruments such as the African Ballafon, Kalimba and Juju shaker. James Cutler says that Daniel is “Magic…He knows how to interpret music to make the cast feel it”. James thinks it is important to blur the line between cast and musician in this piece. “The score is so rich and percussion heavy and the sound needs to be really organic and really visceral. The audience need to be there, in the thick of it, watching it happen.” Apparently a number of the instruments also become props at key moments, but James did not want to give the surprise away just yet. “I strongly believe that music is as much seen as it is heard; a set of wind chimes looks serene and poetic, and the moment you watch the musician run her hands across it you feel the sparkle and magic. To fully appreciate the amazing score of ‘Once on this Island’, I feel you really need to see these instruments in action.”

James tells me that he has loved working with this cast, and appreciated their hard work and creativity. The dance numbers, choreographed by Joel Bow, are some of the most vibrant of any show he has directed. Joel tells me that very little of the show is actually pre-planned choreography. “The actors we cast are all really in tune to the style James and I want, and I have had an easy time of creating the lovely ‘shapes’ they make.” He goes on to explain that ‘Once on this Island’ isn’t a show that needs clean lines, defined groups and spacing, and specific choreography. It is more organic and lyrical. “Some stuff works for me in my lounge room at home, but putting it on other people, bare feet and all, seems different sometimes. That’s where the organic process really excels.”

“Once on this Island’ opens at Chapel off chapel on the 8th of July and runs until the 11th of July. A cast member told me that “the vision that the production team have is so vibrant and exciting, I can’t wait to get on the stage at Chapel off Chapel. We want as many people as possible to experience the beautiful music and story of Once on this Island.”

Why not take a break from our mundane world and visit the Caribbean with Octave Theatre in July?