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CHALLENGES US ALL WITH ITS PERCEPTION, GUTS AND POWERFUL HEART

Print Version

MANAWA
Written by Jamie McCaskill
Directed by Regan Taylor
presented by Tikapa Productions

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 15 Sep 2012 to 13 Oct 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 16 Sep 2012


Manawa means heart or heartland, and the heartland Jamie McCaskill exposes in his Manawa is one most of us may have heard beating but have rarely seen, let alone understood.

In immediate terms it's a hugely funny yet powerful play about two young men thrown together in a prison cell, and their hot young legal aid lawyer's attempts to see them justly served. Or not. What it's really about, however, is our punitive justice system, how divided loyalties can corrupt ideals and how lethal a heart without a head engaged can be.  

Jimmy King, played hard out by the playwright himself, is all heart. Famed through constant media attention as New Zealand's youngest murderer (even though he was convicted as an accessory to murder), the adult – if that's the word – Jimmy is a recidivist criminal with no clear perspective of right and wrong; no sense of personal responsibility or accountability. He is a survivor who shields his vulnerable self with a big mouth and an even bigger ego: bravado incarnate.

His Samoan cellmate, Mau Vaiaga – played with undemonstrative authenticity by Natano Keno – is as quiet as Jimmy is voluble, at least to begin with. The media is characterising him as an eco-terrorist for killing and eating a kakapo on Codfish Island, aka Whenua Hou, so – thanks to the radio role-playing of musician Simon Donald – we know that before Jimmy does. But even as we wait for Jimmy to catch up, the questions remain: what exactly happened out there, and why?

The inevitable bust-up scene, that paradoxically bonds them, is dynamic and memorable, first for exposing a flipside to Jimmy and also for the blistering judgement Mau unleashes on Jimmy in particular and Maori in general. It's but one example of McCaskill's brave and clever writing: brave for its critique of Maori posturing; clever for thereby giving himself permission to dish it out in other directions.

Kali Kopae plays the lawyer, Waimanea Huia, with formidable proficiency, brooking no nonsense from her clients and fronting the media with commanding assurance. She too has a moment of vulnerability, in a phone conversation with her mother; something I will come back to …

From time to time McCaskill, Keni and Kopae play incidental roles: the judges who sentence the prisoners, reporters, an interviewer, a Samoan prison chaplain (McCaskill speaking in fluent Samoan) ... Not so incidentally, McCaskill also plays Mau's employer, ‘Mac' McKay, a Maori farmer whose radical activism is what gets the fresh off the boat Samoan into trouble. Which is not to say Mau didn't do what is alleged. It's just that the circumstances are somewhat more complex than meet the public eye, or that of the judiciary.

This is one area which I feel needs some tweaking. Ingeniously, in ways that do not seem over-explained but do give us clear understandings, some excellent shafts of light are shone on Jimmy's situation, and on Mau's. Conversely, the circumstances surrounding Waimanea's conflicts of interest, or conflicting loyalties to whanau and iwi versus her profession and the principles of justice, are kept in shadow.

I can't speak for everyone but know I was not alone in being mystified as to why exactly ‘Mac' did as he did and why Waimanea does as she does. To be fair, others did deduce it and afterwards I asked around and ‘got it' too. But because we are preoccupied with trying to solve the puzzle, we are robbed of the chance to empathise with Waimanea's dilemma; to tune into her heart as well as question where her head is at.

Apart from being another brave element in the writing, it is this dramatisation of skulduggery and subsequent corruption – where one individual (not to mention his family back in Samoa) is sacrificed for the greater good in furthering a Treaty claim, set against the basic inadequacies of the colonial justice system – that elevates the play from being just an anti-authority and anti-media gripe.  

Did I mention it is hugely funny? The laughs come primarily from shock, at the truth of the characterisations and what they do and say. Each character, no matter how incidental, speaks with a clear and distinctive voice. And (apart from the concerns mentioned above) no matter what they do and how outrageous it is, we understand why.

But funny does not mean trite; far from it. The ending compels us to wrestle with reality even as – on opening night, anyway – we cheer at being hit with a full-on verbal whakapohane.

In his programme note, director Regan Taylor says he and McCaskill – great mates since they studied theatre together – wanted to “present each other a wero”; to challenge themselves professionally and artistically. This they achieve, and having done so, the concluding moment issues the most confronting wero to New Zealand audiences since Foreskin asked us, “Whaddarya?”  

This is Taylor's first fully professional directing gig. He has excelled in modulating the pace to dramatic and comic effect, and drawing our attention exactly where is needed. 

Musician Simon Donald sets the mood with his original songs as we take our seats then issues news reports, operates as a talk-back host and even vocalises the fated kakapo. His valuable contribution is seamlessly integrated into the whole.  

Brian King's simple set of institutional double bunks, flash movable table and seats, a judicial rostrum and corrugated iron panels, as lit by Jennifer Lal, allows for fluid progress through the present and flashback scenes, which are neatly interwoven in a sound dramatic structure.

While it's possible the script could be trimmed a little, it's amazing how much story is covered and theme is explored in 80 minutes. Manawa challenges us all with its perception, guts and powerful heart. I predict a long and healthy life. 
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
 Tamati Patuwai
 Paul Simei-Barton
 James Wenley (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 John Ross
 Richard Mays