REWARDING PRODUCTION OF DEEPLY PERCEPTIVE PLAY
The Pohutukawa Tree
By Bruce Mason
Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
The New Zealand Post Season
at Maidment, Auckland
From 3 Sep 2009 to 26 Sep 2009
Reviewed by John Smythe, 7 Sep 2009
How might his career, and the fortunes of New Zealand's theatres, have progressed had his plays been given their due in his lifetime? When did "the audacity of vision in which our country was founded"* desert our theatres? Was it ever there? Do we have it now?
But rather than rail, I'll take a leaf from the Book that Mason's Aroha Mataira turns to for strength and guidance, and simply celebrate the day that Colin McColl and the ATC saw the light and brought it to us.
Besides, maybe it is only now that we, the play's public, have the cultural awareness and maturity to fully appreciate what Mason saw so clearly all that time ago. Decades before it penetrated the consciousness of most Pakeha New Zealanders, he understood the roots of Māoritanga, and pinpointed ownership and occupation of tribal land as the key issue affecting the present and future wellbeing of colonised Māori.
He also understood Māori language and the way those rooted in 'the old ways' could so fluently move between conversational, formal and oratorical speech. Indeed he had a wonderfully accurate ear for all Kiwi speech patterns, at every social level and in every social context, not least in the Sylvia Atkinson wedding scene, which he crafted to compare the banality of Pakeha rituals against those that arise from tikanga Māori.
At the heart of The Pohutukawa Tree lies the blood that was spilt where it is rooted. In what she calls "the greatest victory ever won by the Māori against the Pakeha," Aroha Mataira's grandfather Whetumârama defended Te Parenga against colonial troops. It was he who planted the red-flowered tree to commemorate that battle; it stands as an emblem of Māoritanga itself. And now it is ailing and seen as increasingly dangerous by the Pakeha incumbents.
"Te Parenga was never taken by force," Aroha tells the newly arrived Rev Sedgwick. "Only by time; Pakeha time. Slice by slice from the whale ..." What was once a great totara forest has been felled to create rolling grassland redolent of England and a citrus orchard, owned by the Atkinson family. Over time they have bought up most of Te Parenga from the Ngati Raukura, most of who have resettled in Tamatea, on the East Coast.
Only Aroha and her children, Queenie (17) and Johnny (19), remain, living in a cottage on the last remnant of tribal land and working for the Atkinsons. And it emerges that without their daily labour, the business cannot survive. "Dammit, they were the orchard," Clive Atkinson admits. But it is the fate of the land itself that determines the final outcome.
Aroha could have chosen to wallow in hatred and bitterness. Instead, at an early age, she embraced Christianity with a fervour Atkinson eventually blames for making her children rebel.
It is when Aroha's dual allegiance to Whetumârama 'the shining star' and Christ 'the light of the world' are reconciled and in balance that she embodies the mana that makes Johnny say, "Ma. You're too big. The world can't hold you." In a moment of great insight, towards the end, Isobel Atkinson at last perceives the "immense nobility" in this woman she has thought of "almost as a servant" for almost two decades.
Sedgwick calls it "grandeur", and when Aroha's children destroy her deep-rooted convictions - Queenie by enjoying sex and love with a Pakeha boy, Roy Mc Dowell, to whom she becomes pregnant; Johnny by taking a liking to whisky, and resorting to rage and desecrating the church when Roy refuses to marry Queenie because she is Māori - he concludes, "if she's to go on living in the little word, then she'll have to cut herself down to fit it."
In Māoritanga, the pohutukawa tree and Aroha Mataira, then, Mason has created an indivisible trinity; the same questions, challenges and dilemmas threaten the survival of all three.
All this is honoured in McColl's fluid production, presented on Tony Rabbit's wide open expanse of milled wooden planks; a back wall and a rolling banked stage - the totara forest felled and forced into regimented lines? - on to which minimal furnishings and props are brought from their side-stage holding positions.
The all-important tree is implied by the mottled red and purple wall, stage right, and it grows in our imaginations as the characters interact with the space it supposedly occupies. Likewise the portraits of Christ and Whetumarama are imagined on the fourth wall.
This is a production that trusts the text, the characters, their actions and interactions to engage our interest without the spoon-feeding of naturalistic presentation. Right from the start, when the cast files in along the back wall and intones The Lord's Prayer in Māori to set the mood and ease us into the post-war rhythm of life, the meta-theatrical elements are established, referencing (according to the design notes) "the honesty of the rehearsal room" and the way Bruce Mason dramatised his stories in solo performance.
To some extent this has the effect of presenting the play as an articulate essay on the way we were; as a study of the root systems from which our modern world has grown: a perspective that has more to offer us in the 21st century. Yet it seems a shame that a fully dramatised Mason play, seen by many as his greatest, should be reduced to the pragmatic dramatic conventions of his solo shows.
Rena Owen brings an intelligent emotional understanding to Aroha, clearly conveying her value system and revealing the battlefield within as it is challenged by her children and the Ngati Raukura, who keep petitioning her to sell the last bit of land so they can build a community hall at Tamatea.
The mana /nobility /grandeur, however, only emerges at the end, in her refusal to be cut down to size. It needs to be more vividly present in the way she fills Sedgwick in on the history of the tree and the land it stands on, in the first scene. He and we need to thrill in the presence of an oratorical presentation born of deep-felt passions that go to the very source of her being.
With that in place there will be more mana in her retrieving the dignity of the disintegrating wedding with the truly celebratory waiata that turns out to be too raunchy for Pakeha translation.
It is such touches, pitted against the moral rectitude Aroha brings to her dealing with Queenie's pregnancy, that proves Mason's genius as a dramatist. Another is the choice of text Aroha gets Johnny to read from her massive bible - "take no thought for the morrow" - just before Queenie arrives to reveal the result of her visit to the doctor. Owen is at her best in this scene, commanding our empathy as she struggles to reconcile the lives she envisages for her children with the wants and desires that are driving them.
Edwin Wright's Sedgwick is also well articulated but a little too smoothed over for my liking. As a man whose guilt at the carnage he caused as a WWII bomber pilot has brought him to his vocation and here, to the other side of the world, he needs to be more of an innocent abroad; more susceptible to the extremes of awe (at Aroha's mana), ecstasy (in telling Mrs A about his trip to Tamatea) and dismay at her inability to compromise, before grasping at the rock of guilt-based Christian imperatives.
On paper Johnny looks hopelessly naïve with his embarrassing questions ("What do you think of the Māori, eh, minister?"), his childlike identification with Robin Hood and his need for his mother's approval. Yet Tiare Tawera makes him entirely credible, vividly tracking his troubled transition from boy to man; from compliant orchard worker through hot-headed radical activist to a level of maturity that bodes well for his future.
Queenie is also a character who grows and changes a lot through the play. Maria Walker definitively embodies her bright-eyed innocence, back-chatting defensiveness, inner pride at her heritage, and girlish love of pretty clothes and the 'bride-as-queen' fantasy before being disillusioned by Roy's cavalier treatment of her and her people. And she captures perfectly the "indomitable" quality Mason specifies, so that when Sedgwick reports she has become the 'queen' of Tamatea, and taken on a widower and his family, into which her own will be born, the picture is very real in our minds.
Richard Knowles is ideal casting as Roy McDowell: handsome, horny, happy-go-lucky and supposedly a man until his fear of being disowned by his parents if he married a Māori reveals his true colours as a coward.
The only other character to change significantly in the course of the play is Isobel Atkinson. In taking her from complacent middle-class mother-of-the-bride and patronising dispenser of charity to self-aware potential campaigner for true social justice, Catherine Wilkin convincingly reveals her vulnerability and inner strength.
Peter McCauley brings a good rough edge to Clive Atkinson, epitomising the post-war values of progress and Pakeha nationalism. Fern Sutherland neatly captures Sylvia Atkinson's readiness to flee the nest and graduate to Hawkes Bay landed gentry.
As Claude Johnson, Clive's mate-from-the-war turned real-estate agent, Michael Keir-Morrissey infuses his cringe-making wedding speech with just enough alcohol to maximise the social satire without flipping into a different genre. Hera Dunleavy, as Claude's chorister wife, also pitches her piercing soprano at just the right level to make Mason's point about Pakeha ritual.
Stuart Devenie's dour Scotsman Dr Lomas, a bit of a wag at the wedding, anchors the settler history of Te Parenga with a wisdom that commands due consideration, given his long and intimate experience with birth and death and everything in between.
Completing the 12-strong cast, Craig Geenty does well as the bridegroom George Rawlings, ex-fighter pilot (DFC and bar), but on opening night I didn't feel he was fully grounded in Sergeant Robinson's boots. (This relatively young casting means he could not be that same Sergeant 'Robbo' Robinson who patrolled Te Parenga between First and Second World Wars, in The End of the Golden Weather.)
Nic Smillie's excellent costume designs are mostly true to the era - "a year-or-two after the Second World War", exemplified by 'Moonlight Becomes you and 'In The Mood' on the gramophone - except perhaps for Roy's blue jeans (also specified by Mason). But then the dancing Roy and Queenie get into is more jive than jitterbug, and the Dick James -crooned 'Robin Hood' theme song Johnny favours (not mentioned in the script) definitely belongs to the mid-1950s TV series.
Perhaps such sleight-of-time is justified in that it expresses a world in transition. And as sound designer John Gibson notes, the traditional instruments played by Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne, used towards the end of the play, "bring in sounds that Bruce could only have dreamed of." Likewise the play is splendidly served by using of Len Lye's recording of the sound made by his moving sculptures to represent Johnny's inner turmoil.
The foyer after opening night was abuzz with people talking about the play itself, in excited affirmation of its extraordinary perception and abiding truths. This clearly proves the immense value of The Pohutukawa Tree and this long overdue and deeply rewarding production.
I understand presales have been strong so don't delay if you haven't booked. Who knows how long it will be before we see another professional production.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
*"I know that a play does not really exist until it is performed," Mason wrote in his note to the second edition of Awatea (1978), "yet equally and paradoxically, it cannot join its country's literature until it is published. This seems to me, in its small way, emblematic of the larger climate of recession and diminution, the current shrinkage to atrophy of the audacity of vision in which our country was founded."
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.
See also reviews by:
Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);
Frances Edmond (New Zealand Listener);