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Whero’s New Net
A play by Albert Belz
Directed by Sam Scott
Featuring an adaptation of short stories by Witi Ihimaera
MASSIVE COMPANY

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 26 Aug 2009 to 29 Aug 2009
[2 hrs 15 mins, incl. interval]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 27 Aug 2009


This intriguingly elusive evocation of an OE experience begins as a straight-forward narrative and turns out to be a great deal more. What starts as a faintly prosaic story of place v displacement morphs into a positively poetic manifestation of personalities-at-war in conflict with a centred sense of identity.

Inspired by Witi Ihimaera's short stories - mostly but not limited to A New Net Goes Fishing (Heinemann 1977) - playwright Albert Belz has moved the unifying context on from urban to intercontinental drift. Or rather he has compared and contrasted the two by virtue of a diary (or is it?) being read by Whero, a young Māori singer adrift in London. It is her having missed her father's unveiling back home that provokes her sudden interest in his - and her own - past. .

Kotare, her father, moved from the East Coast to Auckland with his girlfriend Anahera and their baby daughter, Whero, after the meat works closed down in his home town. Clearly something remains un-confronted and unresolved in the father-daughter relationship ...

Inexorably the carefully crafted revelations distil Whero's and Kotare's states of being, capturing an essence of mental and emotional dislocation that all of us can relate to at some level. To explain it all more clearly here would be to spoil the dramatic impact, so I shall be circumspect.

The Māori proverb - Ka pu te ruha, ka hao te rangatahi - translates as: The old net is cast aside, the new net goes fishing; A new generation takes place of the old. The specific question this play asks is, will Whero's 'new net' - this new life she aspires to - sustain or submerge her true self?

Bree Peters vacillates with great distinction between Whero's feisty adventurer and lost soul abroad, hitting each emotional mark with a trueness that is all the more appreciated in retrospect. As with many elements of the play itself, any questions that arise regarding the credibility or rationality of her behaviour are dramatically answered in the final phase.

To the role of the East-London rocker Red, Whero's stroppy, demanding, controlling and emotionally immature partner in performance and life, Natalie Medlock brings the same semi-articulate vocal and physical qualities she paraded most recently in A Song for the Ugly Kids. [Spoiler warning] This may have been legitimate if it were not for the fact that she has to ring true as a manifestation of Whero's alternative self. When we've seen it all before elsewhere, her credibility as Whero's self-created alter ego is subverted. [ends]

The gay couple in the flat below are Tupo, a Māori New Zealander who makes promotional videos, and Dermot from Ireland, who runs a bar and acts as manager for Whero (and Red). It is Dermot, superbly rendered by Wesley Dowdell, who - when not attending to his own concerns back home concerning a family bible lost in a fire - looks out for Whero in ways that may or may not be in her best interests: we are left to be the judges of that.

Blair Strang's Tupo is sublime, totally at home in the big wide world, happily basking in his simple pleasures and mainstream tastes. The only thing that reminds us he's Māori is when he tries to teach Dermot - they are both pissed and stoned - the Ka Mate haka: "slapping your thighs and skiing, skiing ..." A stand-out scene of poignant comedy.

"I am not a Kiwi," Whero tells Petera, the remote relation who turns up in London (early in the play), presumably expecting food and shelter. "I'm an Aucklander." But he's just there to bring her the diary her father bequeathed her. Jarod Rawiri* nails this elusive character with just the right balance of certainty and mystery.

As manifested through her increasingly obsessive reading of the diary, the progress of Whero's parents' relationship, from the East Coast to Auckland, is played out in a series of scenes that are strongly redolent of - but not directly adapted from - Ihimaera's stories.

Tainui Tukiwaho* finds a full range of emotional states in Kotare's story while Kura Forrester responds, true to each moment, as the increasingly necessary stabilising force. In a neatly drawn cameo, Wesley Dowdell doubles as their Auckland landlord. The memorable fullness of the Kotare /Anahera story, as sketched in a few well-wrought scenes, is another testament to the skills that have created this script and production.

With subtle lighting by Jeremy Ferns and an evocative music and sound design by Tama Waipara, Tracey Collins' ingeniously conceived set, of two low rock walls dividing ocean and sky from land and floorboards, allows director Sam Scott to bring a fluid flow to the action. Jessika Verryt's costume designs are also spot on.

My only concern is with the theatrical weakness of the musical performances that book-end the play. Amplification of guitars and voices is clearly needed. The more confident and alive Whero is when she escapes into her performing persona, the better the whole story will work.

That said, in Whero's New Net, the Massive Company has landed yet another fresh, nutritious and deeply entertaining contribution to the Kiwi theatre banquet. It plays briefly in each town on its tour: don't miss it.
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*In some towns on the tour, Rawiri will play Kotare and Tukiwaho will play Petera.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Nik Smythe
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
 Renee Liang (The Lumiere Reader);
 Nik Smythe (2)