RARE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE GREAT KIWI CLASSIC ENHANCED BY INNOVATIONS
By Bruce Mason
Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
at Maidment, Auckland
From 21 Jul 2012 to 11 Aug 2012
[2hrs 15mins, incl. interval]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 22 Jul 2012
Given opening night's standing ovation, a waiata of appreciation (the Nagti Porou song ‘Paikea') led by East Coasters in the audience, and a Maidment foyer alive with visceral post-show appreciation, the most important thing to say is “Go!”
The Auckland Theatre Company has done it again. Its productions of The Pohutukawa Tree (2009), The End of the Golden Weather (2011) and now Awatea have resoundingly rehabilitated Bruce Mason from trivia quiz questions and academic study back to the professional stage, where his works belong.
Named for the light a bright son brings to his old blind father, Awatea was first written as a radio play, commissioned to star the great bass baritone Inia Te Wiata on his return to New Zealand to play Porgy in Porgy and Bess in 1965, with the formed-for-the-purpose Maori Theatre Trust. Three years later, Te Wiata returned to play Werihe Paku in its Downstage / Maori Theatre Trust live theatre premiere, directed by Dick Johnstone and staged at the acoustically inappropriate Wellington Town Hall. The son, Matt, was played by a 23 year-old George Henare and Davina Whitehouse was miscast as the postmistress Emma Gilhooley (a role written for Pat Evison, who had played it on radio).
In response to rigorous critical feedback, mostly concerning the ending, Mason revised the play, developing what had been a solo epilogue for the famous voice into a fully formed third act which delivers dramatic catharsis, resolves the relationship between Werihe and Gilhooly, and foreshadows a future for Matt that is clearly of his own making.
This version was produced by the Court Theatre for the 1974 Commonwealth Games Arts Festival with Don Selwyn as Werihe and Pat Evison reclaiming Gihooly. But director Mervyn Thompson made it contemporary for that time, which Mason felt was quite wrong. It must be set no later than 1962 to make it credible that the major source of news from the outside world to the isolated coastal settlement of Omoana, is Matt's letters to his father, read aloud by Gilhooly.
It has taken 38 years for Awatea to be produced again (30 years after Mason died) and while this version, superbly directed by Colin McColl, is happily set in 1962, it is different in other respects. But this time I feel confident the changes made (in consultation with the Mason Estate) would have met with Mason's approval. Given he was obliged to create roles for all the Maori Theatre Trust actors, the trimming and conflating of characters to 10 speaking roles and five ‘whanau' extras subtracts nothing from the play's impact. (Some may miss the onstage presence of Irapeta, the butt of relentless ‘fat joke' put-downs, but while her hopes for being Matt's ‘Queen of the hui' are aligned to the play's fantasy v reality theme, she can be seen as surplus to requirements.)
As with The Pohutukawa Tree, set and lighting designer Tony Rabbit has eschewed the naturalism of Mason's suggested ‘old house in the bush' set (such as Peter McInytyre designed for the premiere) for a raked platform in dry summer landscape tones. And hanging in the darkness above, hand-written white on black in the style of Colin McCahon (by Hedda Oosterhoff), are Matt's letters to “My dear father”: an old favourite that is read in the play's final scene plus four that Mason added to the appendix of the published script. Brilliant.
Another welcome innovation is adding, as a prologue, ‘Dr Matt' speaking one of his letters, so that we experience who this almost mythical young man is to the people of Omoana, and appreciate his skill at telling stories rich with idiosyncratic characters and incidents (well before the rules of patient confidentiality would have made such letters illegal). Matt also manifests to voice the final reading, which confirms his ownership of the stories and ‘book-ends' the play very effectively.
In confronting the core question of whether deception is ever justified to avoid hurting others (a convenient rationalisation people use to protect their own reputations), Mason resolves the conflict and alleviates the deception-provoked emotional crisis by celebrating the legitimacy and efficacy of fiction-writing as a vocation. This is but one of the elements that elevates Awatea from the relatively parochial to the status of classical dramatic literature. And it needs to be seen live for that to be appreciated.
The play is set on the New Years Eve and New Years Day of Omoana's seventh annual hui (meaning gathering in this context) and hangi, when successful young doctor Matt Paku – famed as the first student in the district to get University Entrance – returns to his father's place with a keg, pays for the party and cures the ills of his whanau with his healing hands. The formal ceremonial elements maintained by old Werihe are contrasted with the ritual of picking a Queen of the Hui by ballot. Her prize is to spend the night with Matt in a cave down at the beach.
As they peel spuds for the hangi, two women, Ana and Pera, are tasked with laying the expositional foundation amid much banter, including the bossing of off-stage pit-digger Kani (Pera's hen-pecked husband). Nancy Brunning, Nicola Kawana and Rob Mokaraka achieve this with such engaging skill it seems a shame their characters don't have more substantial through-stories. (One note, though: Kani's clothes are too clean for someone who is digging a hangi pit.)
Beautiful Tina, who has obviously been on a clothes-shopping spree to Gisborne, aspires to represent the new generation of worldy-wise youth and is played with flare and comic intelligence by Cian Elyse White. As the prototype disaffected youth Tahi (conflated from 4 brothers), Scotty Cotter gives us a compelling glimpse of where other young Maori are headed, activism-wise.
Geraldine Brophy plays Gilhooly with all stops out, claiming every gene of her Irish heritage (Gilhooley's absconding father was an Irish seaman) to express a woman who wears all her emotions on the outside, even though she is able to master-mind and direct an ingenious conspiracy of supposedly compassionate deception, for fear the suddenly-discovered and unwelcome truth will kill old Werihe.
Her reluctant co-conspirators are the stolid local policeman, Sergeant Jameson – in whom Andrew Grainger finds subtle dimensions – and Detective Inspector Brett, from Auckland, whose transition from going ‘by the book' to taking on a whole new role, and reclaiming his humanity in the process, is compellingly captured by Carl Bland.
All the community's talk and interest is focused on Matt, to whom Te Kohe Tuhaka brings great charm then a surprising level of underlying anger, toughness and awareness of how Pakeha have disenfranchised him and his people. The major dramatic focus is on his blind old father, however, who sold land to send Matt to university and now lives for his son's weekly letters and the stories they contain.
George Henare is sublime, inhabiting Werihe Paki completely; combining a lightness of spirit with a depth of feeling and a powerful (if somewhat misogynistic) patriarchy to claim his mana, despite his physical infirmities. His raging grief-laden anger at the immeasurable loss the truth inflicts on him is right up there with King Lear (whom Henare played about 40 years ago and must surely play again).
Just one of the many nuggets to be found in the play's rich soil is the realisation that when Gilhooly reads the letters out in English, it improves Werihe's ‘Pakeha' no end while she has gained a good command of their language because he dictates his replies in Maori. There is allegorical resonance in the value they bring to each other.
Nic Smillie's costume designs complete the picture beautifully. While I am tempted to say some ‘breaking down' could be in order to make them seem more worn, I wonder if the decision not to is aligned with the avoidance of naturalistic illusion, which includes visible wings where actors can be seem passing through, from time to time, in preparation for their next entrance. (Personally I find this a distraction with no redeeming merit.)
The soundscape, song compositions and arrangements of traditional waiata John Gibson adds to the mix, enriches the total experience greatly. His composition and setting of the closing karakia /chant /waiata – words by Tuhaka – clearly encapsulates the journey from darkness into light, even to those not fluent in te reo. This is the potent new epilogue that brought us to our feet on opening night.
If more decades pass before Awatea is produced professionally again, New Zealand theatre will have abnegated its core responsibility yet again. Meanwhile do not miss this rare opportunity to see a genuine Kiwi classic impeccably produced.
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Footnote: On Saturday 22 July 2012, Auckland Theatre Company productions performed seven times: Awatea opened at the Maidment; Black Confetti played a matinee and evening performance at the Herald; likewise A Shortcut To Happiness on tour played twice at the TSB Showplace in New Plymouth; and Checkout Chicks – The Musical and Tusk Tusk concluded the ATC's Next Big Thing season at The Basement. Impressive!
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See also reviews by:
Sharu Delilkan (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);