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A RICHLY TEXTURED MODERN CLASSIC

Print Version

MICHAEL JAMES MANAIA
by John Broughton
directed by Nathaniel Lees
Taki Rua Productions
DOWNSTAGE SOLOS

at Downstage - return season, Wellington
1 Sep 2012
[2hrs]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 3 Sep 2012


Grief, guilt and anger is a potent cocktail and because it shocks us with its insights, truth and humanity, it produces bursts of comedy too. I rarely resort to ‘tour de force' to describe a performance but here, how better to describe Te Kohe Tuhaka's compulsive (for him) and compelling (for us) tour of duty through the tormented mind of Michael James Manaia.  

Having seen it during this year's NZ International Arts Festival, the first thing to note about the brief fund-raising return to Downstage of this Taku Rua production, directed by Nathaniel Lees – en route to Auckland, Whangarei, New Plymouth and Melbourne – is that it is 25 minutes shorter, plays without an interval and is even better for it.

Tuhaka is himself when he greets us and offers a karakia; on the outside looking in at the space he will inhabit as MJM – or “Mick the Dick” as he has been known, “for obvious reasons.” Set designer Daniel Williams' simple slatted platforms, Lisa Maul's ‘te ao / te po' lighting and Maaka McGregor's less-is-more soundscape combine – in the sure hands of operator Matt Eller – to transport us instantly into the story's many locations, moods and moments in time.

The clear line of crossover into role and out again makes it a safe experience, yet highly stimulatory of all the senses, for Tuhaka and for us. As with most good political theatre, we are not asked to wallow in MJM's emotions and mindlessly share his totally subjective viewpoint but to observe, empathise and critically appraise their causes. This is a play and production which respects its characters and its audiences by exposing truths at many levels and leaving us to judge.

It is hard to tell whether my recent experience of it (let alone my recall of the Colin McColl-directed 1991 world premiere at Downstage with Jim Moriarty) makes me more consciously alert to seeded moments than a first time viewer might be. I am also old enough to remember the stark black & white images of children fleeing napalm and planes dropping Agent Orange, that helped raise public awareness of the atrocities of the Vietnam War while it was still happening. Not to mention the “slit-eyes bastards” rhetoric that was fed to the ‘fodder' at the time, to turn them into the killing machines they needed to be to survive (or not). 

The order “This way, please!” from a disembodied voice is as ambiguous as the race through hospital corridors, the baby cry, the reaching hands are vivid… This is the action that bookends the substantive play and provides the context for MJM's obsessive revisiting of all that has led up to this moment. And he does so by remaining true to ‘where he was at' at the time, leaving the retrospective questions implicit, for himself and for us.

In his quest to make sense of it all, he reaches right back to the creation myths by which the tangata, the whenua and our basic human drives came into being: the prime causes of the whole catastrophe that lies between Te Ao and Te Po.

Not that it is deep and earnest. A lot of his story is amusingly prosaic, like the Fair Isle jerseys his mum from Kent used to knit. It was WW2 that brought his Maori Battalion dad and showgirl mother together, in the shadow of the Battle of Monte Cassino. His maternal grandmother's coming from England is deliciously blended with the Royal Tour. And his anger at the inadequacy of her funeral offers the first glimpse of his pent-up, unresolved anger.

His father's non-communication and drunken violence is no less impactful for being so common in that generation, and Michael's final moment of insight and understanding is truly moving. And salutary. But before we get there, there's the whole issue of what happened to Michael's brother and best mate Mattie – and who was to blame ...

The stories of the coast bros' rites of passage – losing their virginities, coming to Wellington, getting pissed for the first time, joining up to “Kill! Kill! Kill!” – are classic. And the Infantry training, baiting the corporal, the jungle patrols … The visceral moment when the stark reality hits … Aue.

R&R back in Saigon returns him and us to the juke box songs that vie throughout with traditional waiata: a juxtaposition that speaks volumes to our intuitive understanding of what it is to be culturally colonised, taken out of yourself and brought back to your private core through popular music.  

It is phenomenal what gets covered in the richly textured text as Michael James Manaia makes his journey back to “This way, please!”, the race through the corridors, the baby cry, the reaching hands …  

That my memory of the play is richer in recall of the actual people, places and events than the real-time performance that evokes them, is testament to Te Kohe Tuhaka's astonishing fitness and skills as an actor, and Nathaniel Lees' directing.

When the play premiered at Downstage, the first ‘Desert Storm' war had just begun. That its currency remains over two decades later is tragic. But that's what helps to make Michael James Manaia a modern classic that everyone should see at least once. And seeing it more than once just enriches the experience, confirming even more so its right to be called a classic. 
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 Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
 Helen Sims
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Richard Mays
 John Ross
 Tamati Patuwai
 Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);
 Terry MacTavish
 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);