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The Real New Zealand Festival
Arohanui The Greatest Love
Tapeta & Annette Wehi Directors Of Kapa Haka
Tanemahuta Gray Artistic Director
Jim Moriarty MNZM Tumuaki Toi Whakaari /Theatre Director
Helen Pearse-Otene Kaituhi, Kaiako Toi Whakaari /Writer, Acting Tutor

at Opera House, Wellington
From 6 Oct 2011 to 8 Oct 2011
[1hr 50min]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 7 Oct 2011

“Stuff the opera, give these guys the money,” I heard someone say in the buzzing Opera House foyer after the show. Well, it shouldn't be an either/or choice. But there is no doubt that Arohanui – The Greatest Love is simultaneously more profound yet populist than classical opera or ballet is these days in New Zealand; much closer to our hearts than Broadway musicals about Broadway; much more onto it for an audience that – judging by the opening night standing ovation – is into it in a big way. 

Reinvigorating such ‘items' as you might see at a kapa haka festival in the context of a mythical story is an inspired idea, “born out of years of enthusiastic requests from international audiences to present kapa haka in a theatre showcase format,” according to Te Waka Huia leaders Annette and Tapeta Wehi, who share the kapa haka directing credit for Arohanui.

With Helen Pearse-Otene as the writer (and tutor in acting), Jim Moriarty as theatre director and Tanemahuta Gray as artistic director, the idea has grown into something much more than a showcase. This ancient story – delivered with power, passion, emotional truth and humour by a cast of 35, backed by a creative and production team of 20 – speaks directly to us, as much by non-verbal as by verbal means, about the forces that affect our lives and communities every day.

To liberate his people from deprivation and hunger, Parekoi (Tomika Whiu), the chief of Ngati Kaitipua, does a deal with Taramea (Kereama Te Ua), chief of the supernatural Ngai Parehe (the much-feared ‘faerie people'). In exchange for an eight-year loan of the life-force generating mauri stone, Rangitamiro, which promises plentiful food, Parekoi agrees to give up his first-born child to be raised by the Ngai Parehe (the interest, you might say, to be accrued from the loan of the stone which must also, of course, be returned).

The first-born, Kahu (as a child, Puriri Areke Te Hapūa Koria; as an adult, Taumata Soloman), has a twin sister, Mira (as a child, Petiata Koria; as an adult, Te Ara Vakaafi). As the Ngati Kaitipua bask in the abundance brought to them by the now hidden mauri stone. Mira shapes up as the stroppier warrior. In the forest, meanwhile, Kahu encounters and becomes entranced with Kuratawhiti, the Patupaiarehe Princess (as a child, Peata Waitai; as an adult, Kurahapainga Te Ua). The attraction is mutual, in fact.  

Parekoi hopes Ngai Parehe will forget all about the deal but the years without the stone have left them hungry and wanting what it rightfully theirs. When the unpaid debt brings Ngai Parehe to the brink of war, Parekoi offers himself in place of Kahu. And because the mauri stone is not returned, he is imprisoned in the mountain, leading the Ngati Kaitipua to groom the growing twins for vengeance.  

The lovers, Kahu and Kuratawhiti, hope their marriage and the return of the stone for the benefit of all will bring the warring iwi together. But losing her brother as well her father to these strange (and therefore feared and loathed) people, only fuels Mira's rage and war prevails. And when Kahu has to defend his beloved against his violent sister, it is Mira who dies. Only then, amid combined grief, are the weapons laid down. 

As with all great tragedies, the visceral resonance of abiding truths is offset by despair at our inability to learn and live by the lessons such stories teach us. Dishonoured treaties, oil-rich nations exploited, over-reaching entrepreneurs sending contractors to the wall, financial systems feeding greed and fomenting rebellion, whole economies failing and the endless wars with their contrived justifications … All these present-day issues flash through the drama to enhance my engagement with it. No classical opera has ever provoked my awareness of self-inflicted tragedy so profoundly.  

Let me hasten to say it is not a doom and gloom show. Far from it. Its wairua is spirited (if that's not an oxymoron); the commentary on the human condition is delivered with a life-affirming joy that we are all alive to create it, to witness it and to get what a pack of fools we can be. The only slightly wonky thing is a character who lopes about like Quasimodo but has yet to find his place in the character spectrum – e.g. as the wise clown or ‘fool' who sees what others don't.

The blend of Maori and English language ensures Arohanui – The Greatest Love is accessible to all. If I was more conversant with te reo (a number of us commented afterwards how surprised we were at how much we readily understood), and had a greater understanding of the kapa haka and waiata, and their provenance, I would doubtless have enjoyed it even more.   

But such is the generosity of this performance mode that anyone who opens every sense and faculty to the experience cannot help but be entertained by it at many levels. From the moment ‘
Tarakihi' erupts from and upon the mobile geometric stepped set (designed by AposTolis Papazoglou), it's clear we're in for something extraordinary. A traditional action-chant (about a cicada crying in the middle of the night) made famous by Kiri Te Kanawa's millennium selection), it gets a whole new life here.

The waiata are a blend of traditional and modern, with two created especially for this show (‘
Parekoi te Tangata' by Tapeta Wehi, andTe Tangi A Katipo' by Annette Wehi). Every song – variously performed with poi, patu, mau rakau (directed by Tukiterangi and Renata Curtis) and taiaha – claims its place in the story, expressing a wide range of emotions, attitudes and states of being. The vocal and physical combinations are – I have to say – far more expressive of their emotional essence than their equivalents in opera or ballet.

Busby Pease-Otene's sometimes thunderous sound design, Ana Hau's superb costume designs and Martyn Roberts' brilliant lighting design all add greatly to the overall spectacle and deep-felt impact of the unfolding story. (There is no credit for the body painting but I feel compelled to note that my first reaction to seeing the faerie people adorned with light blue and white designs was: they play for Argentina! Trite, I know, but the intensifying competition of the Rugby World Cup is putting us very much in touch with the emotional drivers that fuel Arohanui.)

Staged now as part of the RWC's Real New Zealand Festival, it deserves to play to packed houses.

Beyond this season, if Arohanui – The Greatest Love gets a chance to tour (a big ask, given the size of the enterprise and the ‘real jobs' so many of the company have), it has the capacity to ‘speak' in its wonderfully unique way to anyone in the world about stuff that's affecting us all. From Wall Street to the West Bank, it would be salutary. What would it take?  

Meanwhile if you're in Wellington over the next few days, don't miss it (click on the title above for times, etc.)   

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:
 Greer Robertson
 Jennifer Shennan (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Jack Gray
 Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);
 Tamati Patuwai


Raewyn Whyte posted 7 Oct 2011, 02:23 PM / edited 11 Oct 2011, 12:00 AM

 Arohanui also runs in Auckland 13-21 October at the Dorothy Winstone Centre, Auckland Girls Grammar