September 1, 2022

John Smythe      posted 1 Sep 2022, 05:35 PM / edited 7 Sep 2022, 10:55 AM

Phillip Mann MNZM died on Thursday 1 September 2022

This is my favourite story about Phil Mann as a director

From Downstage Upfront (VUP), pp248-250:

In this, its nineteenth year, Downstage appointed its first playwright-in-residence. While the likes of Peter Bland, Bruce Mason, Mervyn Thompson, John Banas and Tony Taylor had written plays that were produced by Downstage while they were there, and the likewise multi-skilled Jeffrey Thomas and Rawiri Paratene had been employed as writer/actors with Stage-Truck, Vincent O’Sullivan was the first to be officially appointed playwright-in-residence. The $5,000 he had been granted, by the QEII Arts Council and New Zealand Literary Fund, allowed the award-winning poet, short-story writer and radio playwright with one TV play to his credit to take up the residency for six months, from April to September. Vincent had written his first stage play based on the ‘incident’ at the Featherston military camp in February 1943 where a disparate group of Kiwis guarded Japanese prisoners of war. Ignorance, fear and the universal imperatives of maleness led to a shooting where 32 Japanese were killed and 91 wounded (19 of whom died in the next few days), while one New Zealander died and seven were wounded. Vincent called it Shuriken, after the eight-pointed star thrown as a weapon in combat. The subtitle Shit Thursday, which appears on an early draft, was not used.

Rather than workshop it, Phillip Mann opted to develop the play in rehearsal with Vincent present throughout. The pre-production process was characterised by an unusual sense of serendipity. Knowing no Japanese actors, Phil and Vincent trawled Wellington’s martial arts schools and, at the Victoria University Kung Fu Club, found part-Japanese black belt Leo Donnelly. He would also prove invaluable as a creator of authentic-looking fight sequences that blended martial arts with rougher Kiwi fighting modes. A Thai and a Malaysian were also found and Europeans were cast as other prisoners, but the key roles of Adachi, a Japanese officer, and Tai, a Maori soldier, remained uncast. Then a cosmetics salesman, part-time model and bit-part actor (in the TV drama Inside Straight), who was working in the hotel industry, walked into Downstage. Akira Kikuchi had heard Phil was looking for Japanese actors and thought there might be a small role going. Phil auditioned him on the spot. He proved ideal for Adachi, an expert on key elements of ritual and was able to provide Japanese language at vital points. When Phil and Vincent consulted Victoria University kaumatua Pou Temara on who might play the key Maori role of Tai, they realised he was their man. Eventually Pou agreed and he too enhanced the play and production with his language skills and cultural knowledge.

Phil’s attempt to buy a shuriken from a martial arts shop was refused because he couldn’t name his teacher, so John Batty whipped some up in the workshop. The fibrous plaster-board walls of the rehearsal room became pitted with holes as the cast practised, and so one of many symbolic moments evolved: after a Kiwi guard left their hut, the prisoners flung their shurikens, pinning the stars of the New Zealand flag to the wall. Another sequence created in rehearsal was the slow-motion/freeze-frame massacre, which in turn inspired Mark Hadlow to volunteer his trumpet-playing skills for a spine-chilling rendition of ‘The Last Post’. Given a rehearsal period that was no longer than normal, it seemed miraculous that so much was achieved. Or maybe it arose from a shared awareness that this play was addressing a crucial moment in local history that had yet to be resolved; that it exemplified a fundamental purpose of theatre in any community.[i]

Shuriken premièred at Downstage on Friday 29 July. Both Ralph McAllister and Laurie Atkinson urged their readers not to miss it. A mid-season newspaper article noted that Shuriken was attracting the interest of many young people who had known nothing of the ‘incident’ in Featherston. Those who saw it still talk about it as a high point in Downstage history and those who missed out (it did 57%) still kick themselves. In her Act review, Helen White described it as ‘a substantial, surprising and moving piece of work’:

Chiselled into shape by director Phillip Mann with a committed and disciplined cast, it has the look of a classic, something that will stimulate the participants in its making as much as it interests an audience … [It] touches on universals – love (in small measure and mostly in disguise), hate (writ large) and frightening, naked revenge. O’Sullivan … presents the subject as a puzzle rather than a solution, a question with at best no answer and at least two sides … What emerges in the course of the action – broadly naturalistic in the playing of the Kiwi soldiers, heightened by stylisation in the case of the prisoners who are out of their cultural element – is just the unavoidable truth. Two truths in fact: first, that the massacre did occur, and second, that the distance other than physical between those who held the guns and those who faced them was far greater than even they realised … One of the most telling contrasts was made between the comments of the guards upon a prisoner’s bungled suicide, and a Noh-like scene in which the dead man told his own story, representing himself in a tragic mask and performing slow ritualistic gestures in the cool light of his own bier. Ann Coombes’ square-lined set became at times the cage-like barbed wire fence around the compound and at others the screened walls of a Japanese house, temple or tomb.[ii]

[i]      Phillip Mann, interview with JS, 20 January 2004.

[ii]     Helen White, Act, vol 8 no 5, October 1983, p55.


Editor    posted 12 Sep 2022, 10:08 AM

The PUBLIC FAREWELL for Phillip Mann will take place on Sunday 25 September, 1pm – 3pm, at the Hannah Playhouse, 12 Cambridge Terrace, Wellington. 

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