TAKES NO PRISONERS
MICHAEL JAMES MANAIA
by John Broughton
directed by Nathaniel Lees
Taki Rua Productions
at Fortune Theatre, Dunedin
From 2 Feb 2013 to 16 Feb 2013
Reviewed by Terry MacTavish, 3 Feb 2013
The image flashed onto the canvas of the stage set is instantly recognisable: the little girl's face is frozen in a scream of pain and terror as she flees a napalm attack, her thin body naked, burning. That photo sent us into the streets to march against the war in Vietnam, and it still has the power to shock, as did news of the massacre at My Lai. All those clean-cut lads become killing machines, trained to see the enemy and the peasants who sheltered them as sub-human, ending by raping and murdering children.
1971, and I was making angry protest theatre with fellow students, utilising another news photo, of grinning GIs posing with chopped-off Vietnamese heads. My flower-power generation had a message to give the establishment, and what more exciting way than agitprop theatre? I don't think I felt a vestige of sympathy for those young soldiers, many of them conscripts.
1991, and a playwright who has thought deeply about the role of the soldier writes a play brought to stunning life by Jim Moriarty as Maori Vietnam veteran Michael James Manaia. At the shocking conclusion it is impossible to withhold compassion. I find myself forced to question my own assumptions: a mark of really good theatre. It can be hard to accept that those we despise might also be those we must honour: the challenge of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
2013, and John Broughton's dynamic script, directed by Nathaniel Lees for Taki Rua Theatre, and performed by Te Kohe Tuhaka, is as electrifying and as appallingly relevant as ever. In front of the pictures of protesters and bombed children, Tuhaka welcomes us with a dignified karakia, and then plunges barefoot into one of the most demanding roles in New Zealand theatre. It is a dazzling performance – yes, a tour de force – demonstrating the high courage of a battle charge.
This time there is no question about feeling empathy for Michael James, even though the play focuses unashamedly on male experience. I had forgotten how much humour is inherent, or that the whole first half deals with memories of his parents and boyhood. Long before he is a soldier we are on his side, as he depicts hilariously the characters that peopled his childhood, from his Pakeha gran treating him with gingerbread men to his Maori gran revelling in the whitebait season.
His harsh father is there too, a man haunted by another, earlier war about which he cannot speak, but for which his sons suffer. Behind the laughter lies the shadow of the horror of warfare, the damage to each generation.
Powerfully built and exceptionally fit, Tuhaka is as fluid in movement as he is fluent in speech. Sometimes his patter is akin to that of a stand-up comic, and so quick it is just as well his flexible body, gleaming with sweat, enhances the story in lightning-fast transitions. He shifts mood smoothly from bawdy tales in the style of Chaucer's “Nicholas the Spark let fly a monstrous fart” to a splendidly ritualistic interpretation of Maui fighting the Goddess of Death, Hine-nui-te-poi.
With consummate ease he flips from a melodious snatch of 70s pop song or infectious giggle, to holding his audience spellbound in the intense gaze that has made the striking poster a sought-after trophy.
Even in the second half, when the consequences of his father's brutal rule have driven Manaia to join the army, we are never far from laughter. “Where is your name tag, soldier?” – “I memorised it and destroyed it, sir!” But Vietnam awaits, vividly depicted, the awful injuries to comrades, the even more horrific effects on the children of Vietnam; and always the foreshadowing of the hideous consequences to MJ himself of his contact with the USA's potent weapon, Agent Orange.*
The crew has provided superb support. Daniel Williams' set is an effective arrangement of rough wood platforms, and Lees' direction makes imaginative use of it. The different heights inspire marvellously choreographed and flawlessly executed action, some of it thrillingly dangerous. Manaia's khaki boilersuit suggests army uniform, sleeves at times knotted round the waist to reveal a black singlet, that most fundamental and versatile item of Kiwi garb.
With one lone figure carrying such a complex story the lighting is crucial, and designer Lisa Maule does not disappoint. Accompanied by loud insect song, light filtered through palm leaves creates a frightening jungle, but my favourite illusion is the angel icon, made by the tiniest spotlight ever, held tenderly in MJ's hands. At climactic moments, the whole theatre is actually shuddering with the obscene soundscape of war. (Sound design by Maaka McGregor.)
Michael James Manaia marks a bold start to the Fortune's enterprising 2013 programme, which is a daring mix of gritty, challenging drama for the brave, with light-hearted, feel-good comedy for the masses. Deservedly an Aotearoa classic, this particular play manages to combine both. One way or another, it will get you. Like the soldiers in Vietnam's treacherous jungles, Michael James Manaia takes no prisoners.
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*Potent indeed. If you hold a handful of sticky rice in an Asian river, my well-travelled guest tells me later, and it turns green, you know the water is poisoned still.
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See also reviews by:
Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
Janet McAllister (New Zealand Herald);