GUT-WRENCHING TOUR OF DUTY
MICHAEL JAMES MANAIA
by John Broughton
directed by Nathaniel Lees
Taki Rua Productions
at Centrepoint, Palmerston North
From 10 Mar 2012 to 17 Mar 2012
Reviewed by Richard Mays, 13 Mar 2012
Twenty years on and this play still packs a mighty wallop. And what a privilege it is to be walloped. Direct from the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012 in Wellington, Michael James Manaia carries the searing clout of a napalm drop.
In 1994,Jim Moriartyturned up at Centrepoint with John Broughton's 1991 play by way of the Edinburgh Festival. His performance as the traumatised Vietnam War vet staged on a raised square of dirt with a couple of broken tubular chairs as props is still vivid – one of the truly standout shows seen at the theatre in its nearly 40-year history.
The appearance of this 2012 Taki Rua revival performed by Te Kohe Tuhaka, in an army town that provides personnel to serve inAfghanistan, is timely. That it turns up during the fallout over defence force redundancies, ‘civilianisation', and a subsequent drop in morale is coincidence to be sure, but it's hard not to watch this startling production without being reminded of current defence force circumstances, and just what it takes to serve in a war zone.
Michael James Manaia is a Kiwi male rite-of-passage story with a tragic outcome. Sons of a Maori Battalion Cassino veteran and an English war bride, Michael and brother Mattie grow up on aHawkesBay marae; attending school inHastings where their father teaches.
It quickly becomes apparent that Michael has real issues with his father, a strict disciplinarian and man silently affected by his World War II experiences. That Michael the narrator is in an unhealthy state of mind is obvious from his sometimes violent Tourette's-style outbreaks and diversions from a story that contains a wealth of Maori cultural perspective, legends, lively anecdote and humour, but one which grows steadily darker.
The real art of Tuhaka's striking performance during the demanding two-hour solo show is his ability to make quick physical, emotional and vocal transformations. From being light-hearted to the near manic confrontations with his character's demons, the actor also effectively sustains the subtle tensions between these extremes.
Directed by Nathaniel Lees, aided by a sensitive lighting plot (Lisa Maule) and pinpoint sound cues (Maaka McGregor), this is an extremely physical enactment, with Tuhaka perpetually prowling and swinging about on a set that contains higher and lower raised platforms (designed by Dan Williams).
Still seeking approval from his father, young Michael joins the army, and after basic training at Waiouru, volunteers as a member of the 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment inVietnam. His tense tour of duty in the landmine, booby-trap and ambush-riddled jungle is the play's most effective part, containing pre-echoes of today's war inAfghanistan. That the man is suffering a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome is obvious, with his civilian situation compounded by what could be described as family karma.
Culturally revealing, funny as well as gut-wrenching, and ultimately heart-breaking, this dramatic experience is part of our own living-memory social history. Its intense images are bound to haunt.
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See also reviews by:
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);
Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);