A PERFORMANCE OF HUGE VARIETY, SUBTLETY, INVENTIVENESS AND ENERGY
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 John Ross, 16 Mar 2012
High-octane, ferociously complex, ultimately devastating, this new rendition of Broughton's classic play, with Te Kohe Tukaka as the solo performer, is touring the country after its showing at the International Festival of the Arts inWellington.
Portraying one Maori man's life, this is also an exposure of the horrific impacts of warfare upon the lives of those involved in the on-the-ground fighting, whereby even the men who come home alive and without visible wound-injuries are all-too-often damaged for the rest of their lives.
For many veterans of the First World War, apart from shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder, there was the lung damage caused by poison gas (which led two decades later to the death of one of my great-uncles). For the Vietnam War, there was Agent Orange, and for the two Iraq Wars, which we largely avoided, it was dirty depleted uranium, both of which did diabolical harm not only to those directly affected but also to their offspring. (The extent of the willed moral stupidity of the senior military mind, in choosing to go on using this shit, beggars belief.)
At any rate, for everyone who has seen the play performed before byJim Moriarty, although it came around long enough ago for one to have only a vague memory of details, we already know the worst issue is the catastrophic genetic consequence, for the still-young man returned after a year's service in Vietnam of exposure to Agent Orange, so that he is able to beget only a grossly deformed child. As becomes clear at the end (perhaps clearer than in Moriarty's performance), the man who tells his story has already had in mind, from the start, its ghastly outcome. Hence his wild and violent mood swings, as his mind flips away from the mood of the moment within the story.
In this production, the unmediated Maori dimension is quite strong, with a korero at the start and at the ending, and finishing with a sprinkling of water, to cleanse one from contact with death. The Maori world that Michael James (Mick) comes out of needs no explication, and the monologue sometimes goes at rap pace. OK so long as you get the gist.
The whole first half (yes, there's an interval) deals with the boy growing to young manhood, and the death of his brother, brought about by the unintended consequences of his father's drunken anger, and domineering. His father, a Two-Eight Battalion veteran, will not talk about his own war experience, yet, and since (as his son later grasps), he remains traumatised by it, and unable even to warn his son against volunteering to join the army.
The second half begins with basic training, goes on to peacetime soldiering in Singapore, which is enjoyable enough, but then to volunteering again, to join the New Zealand infantry force in Vietnam; and the situation of patrolling is conveyed very convincingly, with the tension, the usual monotony, the occasional disaster, or firefight, the horror of others suffering shocking wounding. Then there's the return home, the shy courtship, marriage, enjoyable work to make a living. Everything coming right. Except it doesn't.
Actor and director (Nathaniel Lees) have put together a performance of huge variety, subtlety, inventiveness and energy, well-served by David Williams' unfussy set with each of its elements, including a small, low-raised platform stage-left and a higher-raised one upstage centre, fulfilling many functions, by Lisa Maule's lighting, and by Maaka McGregor's often-ominous, sometimes shocking, sound effects.
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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);