October 15, 2009


Veteran  actor, writer, and poet Martyn Sanderson died at his home in Otaki yesterday (14/10) aged 71.  

Up until his death Martyn Sanderson was working with his wife Wanjiku Kiare to produce the play Muntu directed by the revered Kenyan artist and playwright Wakanyote Njuguna, whom the couple had brought to New Zealand through the African Connection Aotearoa – which they founded.

The play was due to have its opening night in the Otaki Memorial Hall tomorrow (16/10).  The family and cast have decided to continue with the performance in honour of Martyn’s life.  

Martyn Sanderson was co-founder of Downstage, Wellington’s first professional theatre, and is probably best known for having one of the most distinctive voices in New Zealand. He appeared in 26 New Zealand movies.

He is known to many Kiwis for his role as a somewhat petulant fisherman, in a long-running Instant Kiwi advertisement – which is currently being rescreened on television. 

In real life, Martyn Sanderson spent time in communes in India and the Hawke’s Bay, and made films in Australia and Samoa.  He has lived in Otaki for the past 10 years.

On screen, he has portrayed Frank Sargeson (An Angel at My Table) and Richard Pearse, yelled at rugby legend Grizz Willie (Old Scores), and been spectacularly killed in both Utu and The Fellowship of the Ring. His performances have also reinvigorated many stereotypes of the Kiwi male – the commonsense everyman, the defiant individualist, and the narrow-minded parent.

Martyn Sanderson was born in the back of a Model T Ford near Granity on the West Coast – his father was a missionary and his mother a writer.

Martyn  Sanderson directed his first play while studying literature at Oxford University. After trying theology at Cambridge, he abandoned plans to become a priest, and married future ceramicist Liz Earth.

On returning to New Zealand, Martyn became one of the founders of one of New Zealand’s longest-running theatres, Downstage. His hope was "to change the whole of society".

In 1966 Martyn Sanderson moved to Australia, where he began habits that would last decades: acting for the screen, and working on his own documentaries. His disregard for convention was already clear. While acting in the movie Ned Kelly (starring Mick Jagger as Ned!) he worked on an off-beat documentary A Stone in the Bush, and then began A Stitch in Time, which mixes electronic sounds and Sanderson’s poetry with images of sewing and moviemaking.

In 1972 the Sanderson family relocated to the Hawke’s Bay, to live communally with the families of Alun Bollinger and Geoff Murphy (a period glimpsed in the Sanderson-directed documentary Charlie Horse.) This creatively-fertile period saw Sanderson touring with Bruno Lawrence’s multi-media group Blerta, and playing lead villain in the Blerta movie Wild Man (1977). Echoing his twin contributions to Wild Man, that year he acted in, and co-wrote, the feature romance Solo.

On television, Martyn Sanderson won a 1976 Feltex award for his portrayal of aviation pioneer Richard Pearse. He was nominated again for historical TV epic The Governor – playing a conflicted general, who is ordered to expel Mâori villagers from their lands. The same year he worked with director Barry Barclay on a more personal piece: Autumn Fires, which looked into his own colourful family in the Hokianga.

In the eighties, Martyn Sanderson turned increasingly to the big screen. Aside from providing arguably one of Kiwi cinema’s finest narrations, for The Scarecrow (1982), he contributed memorable portraits of the Kiwi male in Bad Blood, Trial Run and Beyond Reasonable Doubt (as murder suspect Len Demler).

Martyn Sanderson also worked as a scriptwriter and director – directing Keskidee Aroha, shorts featuring poetry by Denis Glover and Alistair Campbell, and the half-hour Universal Drive (part of the About Face series) – about a young woman spraypainter trying to win respect from her car-mad brother. Keskidee Aroha, co-directed with Merata Mita, documented a cross-cultural tour of New Zealand by Keskidee, a London-based black theatre group and Sanderson later married Keskidee actor Wanjiku Kiarie.

In 1989, Martyn Sanderson also directed the feature film Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, which he adapted from two works by Samoan writer Albert Wendt. The film follows a young Samoan (Faifua Amiga) caught between tradition and the values of European colonisers. His best friend is a dwarf who is likened to a mythical flying fox – half bird, and half fox – because he doesn’t quite fit into society. Martyn won an award for ‘Best Screenplay’ at the 1989 Tokyo International Film Festival for this work.

In 2005 Martyn Sanderson was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, "for services to literature and the theatre". Martyn Sanderson is survived by his wife Wanjiku Kiarie-Sanderson, daughters Pippa, Niccola, Lucy and Emma, son Jamie and his step-son Kevin.

A Memorial service for Martyn will be held:
11am, Monday 19 October

Rangiatea Church, 33 Te Rauparaha Street, Otaki
followed by a gathering at ‘The Winemaker’s Daughter’ State Highway 1, Te Horo.
– – – – – – – – – – 
Muntu, by Ghanaian playwright Joe de Graft, is directed by Wakanyote Njuguna, a Kenyan playwright, theatre director, actor, artist and educator. His Assistant Director is Kenyan actress and poet, Wanjiku Kiarie Sanderson and the producer was the late Martyn Sanderson.
Muntu is an epic work, of classical proportions, that symbolically represents the history, philosophy, politics, economics and cultures of Africa. Unlike the text-books and academic journals where these matters are usually discussed, Muntu vibrates with the energy of drumming, songs, dance, mime, poetry and dramatic confrontation that bring the issues to life. 

At its first production, Muntu raised issues, including the historical function of the Christian churches in Africa, that led to heated argument. Thirty years later, it stands up very well as a provocative, engaging platform for debate. 

When / Where:

Friday 16 October, 7.30 p.m.
Otaki Memorial Hall, Main Street, Otaki.
Tickets at Otaki Travel, 74 Main Street. (06) 364 8415
$15, $10 concession, high school and wânanga students $5.

Saturday 17 October, 2.00 p.m. and 8.00 p.m.
Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Library Bldg, 2 Queens Drive.
Tickets at Downstage (04) 801 6946 and door sales
$15, $10 concession, high school students $5.

Sunday 18th October, 3.00 p.m.
Toi Whakaari/NZ Drama and Dance Centre,
11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington.
Tickets at Downstage (04) 801 6946 and door sales
$15, $10 concession, Toi Whakaari students $5. 


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