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NOT FOR THE FAINT HEARTED BUT DEEPLY AFFECTING

Print Version

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012
MICHAEL JAMES MANAIA
by John Broughton
directed by Nathaniel Lees
Taki Rua Productions
DOWNSTAGE SOLOS

at Downstage Theatre, Wellington
From 25 Feb 2012 to 4 Mar 2012
[2hrs]

Reviewed by Helen Sims, 28 Feb 2012


A strong sense of expectation pervades the audience present to see Taki Rua's revival of Michael James Manaia.  Solo performer Te Kohe Tuhaka strolls almost casually into the auditorium at Downstage and welcomes us.  He delivers a karakia and then launches into the play.  Aside from a short interval Tuhaka won't leave the stage until some 2 hours later. 

During those 2 hours he takes us from small townNew Zealandto the jungles ofVietnamand deep into one man's purgatory.  It's the story of Michael James Manaia, a distinctly NewZealandstory in which one man's struggles are reflective of our confused and conflicted cultural environment.

The structure is relatively linear: we start with birth and childhood, which occupies most of the first half of the show.  Of particular significance is Manaia's close relationship with his brother and antipathy towards his father.  The story is told retrospectively, with ‘present day' Manaia interpolating commentary. 

The bulk of the first half is light in tone, although we get a strong sense of darkness underlying the story-telling by Manaia's frequent violent outbursts.  The reason for these outbursts is revealed early in the second half.  Manaia joins the army and is sent toVietnam.  The effect this has on him physically and mentally, and the disjunction it produces between Manaia and the society he returns to after the war, is revealed as the real subject matter of the play.  As Manaia says, no one talks about this, but he's going to.  

Established early on are intriguing themes of masculinity, father/son relationships, cultural differences and of course the unspoken and unwritten impacts of war.  Mythologies of masculinity tied to warfare or virility are a common thread, including reference to 'The Charge of the Light Brigade', Maui's exploits, Kahungunu's winning of Rongomaiwahine, Tane and his daughter-wife, and even the story of his parents meeting in wartime Britain.  

The story largely excludes the reported words and deeds of female influences in Manaia's life, namely his mother and grandmother, and later his wife.  Although women seem to be a source of support and comfort, their role in shaping the man is far less prominent than that of his brother and father, and later his army comrades. 

This is probably largely accounted for by the subject matter and themes chosen by writer John Broughton, but I did feel as though female roles and influences were glossed over.  Maybe this is a further symptom of our cultural environment though.

Broughton does not shy away from taking us to some very dark places with Manaia's story.  The complex script is complemented by Taki Rua's simple but careful production.  Beautiful lighting by Lisa Maule evokes changes in mood and setting.  I'm a huge fan of Maule's distinctive designs, and this is one of the most beautiful and clever I have seen.  

The production is complemented by its sparse set (designed by Daniel Williams), with moving multi-level platforms used to create additional levels.  Tuhaka moves between the platforms with astonishing athleticism.  Music and sound by designer Maaka McGregor is also used effectively to changes mood and setting, and several times to jolt the audience in their seats.

The success of this play ultimately depends on the actor portraying Manaia.  Tuhaka delivers an astonishing performance, managing to convey immense strength as well as fragility – sometimes simultaneously.  He sustains his strong voice and physical agility over the duration of the performance. 

Nathaniel Lees' direction is unfussy and seems geared to drawing the audience in as witnesses.  We are often eyeballed in a way that makes us complicit in events, although the play stops short of outright confrontation.

This is an important piece of theatre, brilliantly re-staged by Taki Rua for the International Arts Festival. It's not for the faint hearted, but it is deeply affecting.  There's a season at Centrepoint in Palmerston North after the Downstage season finishes – do not miss it. 

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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Med (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Richard Mays
 John Ross
 John Smythe
 Tamati Patuwai
 Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);
 Terry MacTavish
 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);