And What Remains

BATS Theatre, Wellington

25/08/2006 - 02/09/2006

Production Details


Written by Miria George
Directed by Hone Kouka


They have departed. All of them. Only one remains. And now she waits to depart.

Written by the winner of the Emerging Pacific Artist Award, 2005.


Cast:
Simon Vincent
Erina Daniels
Semu Filipo
Rina Patel
Sam Selliman


Production:
Set design, Tony De Goldi
Costume design, Natalia Huaki Gwizdizardski
Lighting design (& operation), Rob larsen
Sound design, Stephen Gallagher.


Theatre ,


1hr 20mins, no interval

Implausible leap of faith required

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Aug 2006

Since last November when And What Remains was premiered at the City Gallery, the playwright Miria George has won the Emerging Pacific Artist Award. Her play, with the same excellent cast, has returned to Bats tightened and revised.

The play is set in Wellington Airport’s international departure lounge and it must have seemed that the City Gallery and its spaciousness would be an ideal place to perform it. The long rectangular gallery and the high ceiling in fact diffused all the elusive talk. At the smaller Bats the play’s political warnings are much more forceful and concentrated even though the play’s futuristic setting (2010) and the ethnically cleansed New Zealand is still impossible to swallow.

In the first production the characters were given symbolic names, now they have names but they remain stolidly symbols so that Mary (Erina Daniels) who was M for Māori in the original and is now actually called ’16 per cent’ at one point just in case we didn’t know that Māori make up 16% of the population. There is also Ila (Rina Patel), Ana (Sam Selliman), Solomon (Semu Filipo), and Peter (Simon Vincent) each representing a different racial group.

The play is, as Hone Kouka writes in the programme, unashamedly about politics and it is a warning that our civil liberties are being eroded, that new injustices are occurring. But to leap from the foreshore and seabed controversy and other contemporary problems to mass deportations, ethnic cleansing, The Liberal Government of 2010 (it was 2008 in the first production) forcibly sterilising all Māori women, and that Mary is the last Māori to leave Aotearoa is to stretch credibility to the breaking point.

This is not to deny that a dystopia cannot occur here and that we shouldn’t be complacent about current injustices, but propaganda, whether a warning or a call to arms, to be effective in the theatre has to make the audience believe that the events being shown have some bearing on reality. Can you really accept that the Māori race could be wiped out or deported en masse (where to for heaven’s sake?) without fierce resistance? And What Remains seems to suggest that this is what could happen.

[To read the Comments on John Smythe’s review, which may also relate to this review, click on the link below and scroll down.]

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Inconceivable

Review by John Smythe 26th Aug 2006

Timely warning or paranoid fantasy? Credible political scenario or absurdist theatre designed to make a political point?

Which ever way you see it, there is no doubt that Miria George’s And What Remains provoked its audience to intense discussion after opening night. And that’s good. Except most of the talk I heard was about the credibility of its premise, which is a few steps behind where the debate should be located.

An artfully distressed publicity panel pretty well summarises what we are dealing with here. Take away the typographical trickery and it reads: "They have departed. All of them. Only one remains. And now she waits to depart." Excuse my pedantry, but it doesn’t make sense.

Nor does the play itself, and without that fundamental requirement of all story-telling – the willing suspension of disbelief, no matter how fantastical the idea might be – the play, the ‘make believe’ exercise, is battling to gain much traction at any level.

The ‘what if …?’ proposed is this: by 2010, all New Zealanders have bought into the (Brash/ National) notion that we can only go forward as "one people" with "equal opportunity" if we repudiate any race-based policies or legislation. Unfortunately we have also, in total contradiction of that ideal, subscribed to the idea that all Mâori abuse their children and each other, and therefore all Mâori women under 25 must accept a contraceptive injection. Except what ‘They’ are really doing, unofficially but comprehensively, is making them all sterile. It’s ethnic cleansing by stealth.

The deal is that all young Mâori women, totally on the basis of race and gender, must either accept this fascist dictate or leave the country. So now, at the point where the play starts, all but one Mâori has left the country (except there seems to be a cousin who hasn’t and won’t – but that’s because she now calls herself a New Zealander and no longer identifies as Māori). There has been no revolution, they have just up and gone. We are not told where.

Beyond the inconceivability of such Mâori meekness, the play also conveniently ignores the obvious corollaries of their becoming political refugees seeking asylum in other countries, of a significant section of Pakeha society being actively outraged, and of the United Nations inevitably imposing sanctions against us for implementing such policies.

Having seen the first outing of And What Remains (at the City Gallery in 2005) – personally funded by Hone Kouka in the name of his Tawata Productions – and being aware that the basic premise remained, I came to this BATS season prepared to accept it as absurdist theatre: either a logical premise taken to an absurd conclusion or an absurd premise taken to a logical conclusion (it has to be one or the other because absurdity is a relative concept).

Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders (1959) seemed like a good precedent. (A family is forced to be upwardly mobile as they attempt to escape an unexplained noise. As they cram into smaller and smaller rooms the higher they rise up the pyramid of power, they continue to physically abuse the cowering Schmürz, who finally gains possession of their ’empire’.) The important thing is that the absurdist scenario raises our political and/or social consciousness, or offers metaphysical insight into the human condition.  

Sadly I have to conclude that And What Remains does not, and cannot, work either politically or theatrically because it takes an absurd premise to an absurd conclusion. We can appreciate skilled performances, stylish production values and moments of clear recognition – of ourselves, each other and the political landscape we live in – but in the end the 80-odd minutes of strutting and fretting upon this particular stage signifies little of value.

Everyone wears white in a black space featuring two rows of black chairs, two broad white lines like runway markings, and a translucent white screen across the back (designed by Tony De Goldi and lit by Rob Larsen). Stephen Gallagher’s soundscape includes the roar of jets and the flushing of a toilet. Symbolic?

We arrive to find five figures frozen in time, in what turns out to be a international departure lounge. All but one – Mary (Erina Daniels) – leave and, in stylised movement, she interacts with her white cabin case and wrestles with a white scarf, traversing the full spectrum of emotions in the process. A few more such stylised sequences will punctuate the relatively realistic proceedings to come.

Ana (Sam Selliman), a Malaysian immigrant, is employed as a cleaner and is intrusively inquisitive about who the imminently departing are, how they get their money – do they earn it? – why they are leaving … Her repetitive mantras of enquiry make her something of a chorus device. On a personal level, she would love to leave but her family obligations keep her here.

Ila (Rina Patel) – New Zealand born of Indian heritage whose parents live in London – is something of a compulsive globetrotter. It is she who recognises the much publicised Mary, now mercifully protected from a hounding media by being beyond the point of no return, as the last "one" to be leaving. Also compulsively stroppy, Ila takes the "isn’t it terrible, what’s happening?" line and challenges the others: "Don’t you care?"

Samoan Solomon (Semu Filipo) has been saving up and is ambivalent about taking off on his big OE. Averse to public displays of passion, he tries to keep himself to himself and claims "what’s been happening" is none of his business. I suppose he represents apathy while Ana, through having limited English and being culturally disconnected, represents ignorance. And Ila – who gives the potted history lessons, and reminds us of such things as the foreshore and seabed legislation – represents knowledge as well as conscience (not that she accepts any responsibility for "what’s been happening" herself).

Mary keeps mostly quiet through all this exposition and didactic point-making. Having made her decision, she wants the others to do likewise. Later, when she’s off in the loo – and engaging meaningfully with the dirt she turns out to have in her cabin case – a Pakeha guy, arrives in the departure lounge, bearing a small gift-wrapped package.

Peter (Simon Vincent), a Bay of Plenty farmer, is obsessed with the Indonesian tsunami and how long it has taken to implement a credible rehousing programme … He also turns out to have been Mary’s partner of 12 years. Unaware that the compulsory contraception programme has actually involved sterilisation, he has gone along with it, sincerely believing that they would fulfil the liberal dream of equal opportunity. Yeah, right.

Peter wants Mary to stay ("You go, and what remains?"). Mary wants Peter to go with her. But he won’t leave his land because it’s been in the family for two whole generations and he feels a spiritual connection with it …

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time to render Mary passive, if privately emotive, leaving the others – and us in the audience – to confront the obscene atrocity of "what’s been happening" and interrogate the mindless justifications. But in effect, in the context of theatre, it makes her a wimp and simply contributes to inconceivability of the whole scenario, engendering more than a little tedium in the process.

Apart from telling the others to shut up, Mary’s only act of assertiveness, in the final moment, is to tell Peter, "You don’t think." Unfortunately for the play, I do. And I think it doesn’t make sense.

That said, I do think Hone Kouka and all the participants are to be highly commended for putting this play to the test. Miria George is clearly an important emerging talent and will no doubt benefit from this experience: a learning opportunity that is rarely offered to most New Zealand playwrights, who are required – it seems – to come up with potential blockbusters or be ignored by the recurrently funded theatres.

Comments

Mahinarangi September 1st, 2006

Nga mihi nui ki a koe e Miria mo tenei whakaari hohonu mo ngai tatou te iwi Maori. Ki ahau, he whakaari pouri hoki no te mea, i kite au i nga rangirua katoa e ai ki ngai tatou. Ko te tumanako me whai whakaaro, whakawhiti korero hoki tatou nga tangata katoa o te motu nei ahakoa ko wai, ki nga take o tenei whakaari. Kia koe John, tautoko au ki ou whakaaro, kahore au i te whakapono i te mea ka wehe ngai tatou ki Aotearoa nei, engari me whakaaaro tatou ki tenei whakatuaki.... Ma te wahine, me te whenua, ka ngaro ai te tangata. Tauke Miria!!

John Smythe August 30th, 2006

Thanks all the same ‘Angst Hadenuff’, but you misunderstand my comment that the post-show discussions I heard were “a few steps behind where the debate should be located”. I’m not saying the issues at the core of And What Remains should not be debated – far from it.

What I mean is that those core issues – of cultural alienation in the name of equal opportunities for all – seemed to have been hijacked by the credibility question. And may I attempt to clarify once more that by “credibility” I simply mean the willing suspension of disbelief that all storytelling forms require, no matter how fantastical the story might be? Fairy stories, sci-fi, surrealist fantasy, existential angst, political satire, soppy romance … no matter what the genre, the rules of engagement in live theatre require us to “buy in” to the “make believe” en route to getting the underlying and over-arching points – which may involve sharing the subjective experience (at a conscious or even subliminal level) and/or wrestling with political- dialectics or intellectual conundrums from a position of emotional alienation.

It may surprise some correspondents that – despite my being white, middle class, middle aged and male – I believe I recognised the roots, heard the references and felt the resonances of the pea-brained, fear-based ignorance and arrogance that have permeated the media at all levels and provoked Miria to write And What Remains. None of that is in question: I take it as a given.

My comments go to the craft of playwrighting and assume that Miria George, as a clearly talented and committed professional, is up for the challenge of rigorous exchange. To approach her on any other level would be patronising, in my book. As for the assumptions that because I am a member of the “dominant culture” I am incapable of being anything but myopic in my awareness and understanding of the human condition at any level beyond that of sheltered privilege, that can reduce me to such “what’s the point?” despair that I feel a powerful urge to leave the country, again … There might even be a play in it (The last white male is leaving the country …)

Hell, I could tell you stories that prove incontrovertibly that I have a PhD or Black Belt in Identity Crisis, made worse by the deep-felt guilt of being white, male, middle class, middle-aged … But I'm over all that, it helps no-one and nothing, and anyway, it’s not about me. In the end we all have more in common, as humans being, than not – and what helps to make life really interesting is our differences. Without diversity, what a boring old world it would be.

All I want to add at this point is that I am delighted the theatreview website is hosting this robust discussion and I shall always continue to welcome such debate no matter what flak I cop in the process or how much the views expressed conflict with mine. As any good actor knows, the value of good drama lies in the space between the polarised characters.

Oh and by the way, regarding ‘Angst Hadenuff’s comment that Philip Braithwaite’s The Human Engine “challenges Maori issues” – I disagree. By his own admission, Robbie Sinclair (played with extraordinary veracity in the reading by Jason Te Kare) is neither Maori nor Pakeha. He – like Once Were Warriors’ Jake the Muss – is stuck in a no-man’s land between two cultures and just because (like Jake) he is perceived as Maori by some, that doesn’t mean he represents all Maori ... Just thought I’d mention that.

Angst Hadenuff August 30th, 2006

Oh sure, a huge amount of talk was generated, but John Smythe's comment that it was "a few steps behind where the debate should be located" is the point here. There are today in New Zealand some VERY important topics we should be discussing; sadly, this is yet another example of a very silly play that completely fails to engage with any of them, and so any chatter generated is utterly pointless. All heat and no light, as usual. If you want a new play that challenges Maori issues and has the potential to be very controversial, try the (very pakeha) Phillip Braithwaite's 'The Human Engine", which had a great reading the other day.

Sonal Patel August 29th, 2006

To poorly echo the thoughts of Trish and Alice: I "buy into it" as you say, because I can see from my experience of living here, the signs, the signals, the ways that are leading us down the path to the New Zealand that Miria has created. Would NZ buy into the Brash/National ideal of "one people", "equal opportunity" or (my favourite which you have left out) "Bedrock NZ values"? Well, yes, we have in a way: National won an awful lot of seats last election (with the help of/in spite of the Exclusive Brethren) and chances are they will take the house come next election; Minister Winston (which-minority-shall-I-target-this-election) Peters still gets into parliament having lost to Bob ("how do we know there's not a crook with a gun hiding under a burqa") Clarkson; Rosemary McLeod and Karl Du Frense openly homophobic rants in recent Fairfax publications (where was the outrage?); The anti-PC movement (because pronouncing someone's name properly and paying respect to their culture is obviously namby pamby and wet); The little or no television coverage about the Korean student who disappeared during the Auckland blackout compared to the nightly, headline coverage about the Pakeha Vic student who tragically died in the last few weeks; The fact that every time an incident or crime involves someone of Maori decent it's a "Maori issue" but should a Pakeha be involved, it's never a "Pakeha issue"(or Anglo-Saxon/Celtic/Norman if you prefer). Is it that hard to make the leap from now into Miria's play where sterilisation programmes could happen? Would we allow it to happen on this patch of land we call "God's own"? Well let's not call it sterilisation, let us call it Family Planning, or population control or poverty control, let’s say that we have found the gene that makes people naturally criminals and so anyone carrying that gene should be barred from having children, say that in light of the terrible Kahui twins tragedy that there are just some people who should never have children - it's not that hard to find these arguments floating in society now. As for the claim of Maori meekness (which I personally think it buying into the stereotype of the noble savage or the warrior race), I think Miria's play is anything but. Here is a Maori woman who by writing this play, by getting it on stage, has cried out to her audience look at where we are heading, look at what we could be doing ourselves, wake up! I would hardly call this meek. Her character Mary, to me, embodies the frustration of a struggle of a people. How long must they fight? How long will it take to be heard? How many generations will this take? Is 160+ years not enough? When, after all this, do you finally resign? When do you decide that you've had enough, you're too tired to keep on fighting, that it is time to go? That Miria's play has provoked such passionate discussion is brilliant. That the discussion is stuck on plausibility is sad, but I do not think Miria and her play should bear the fault for this. I would hate to think that this has come down to a cultural difference (with the odd exception like David). If nothing else, Miria's play has exposed the barrier in communication between the dominant and minority cultures. I hope that others who have taken the same reading of the play as you, John, will read these comments and begin to understand and engage with the issues raised in the play. I hope that other writers who connect with Miria's play will follow her lead and be brave enough to show on stage that she is not alone. From there we may get a better understanding of each other and hopefully start a dialogue where we listen rather than dismiss.

Trish Young August 29th, 2006

Is it so inconceivable as a notion? Instead I feel it is somewhat ironic that a person of the dominant culture in this country can so quickly and easily dismiss the views of someone from a minority culture – surely one of the themes of the play? I feel that the notion that activities that occur against a minority group are seen as abhorrent, but are ‘meekly’ accepted by the minority group has been a part of the culture of this country for many years. It may seem in the play that Maori have meekly given up and taken an unbelievable option to leave the country, but consideration must be given to what it feels like to be so dis-empowered when living in a society where very little of your culture is valued by the dominant group let alone accepted into daily practice. How can someone who is so dis-empowered by the mechanisms of a dominant culture actually feel able to ‘fight’ as is recommended by the reviewer? But given that the members of the minority group may be able to actually do that - how long can one individual continue to ‘fight’ against immeasurable odds when they are constantly up against attitudes, behaviours and systems that put down their beliefs, practices and values? How long can a minority group stand up to the pressures exerted by the dominant group? How long ‘should’ a minority group have to ‘fight’ against the pressures to accept what is dished out by those of the dominant culture? More importantly, I believe, how long should members of the dominant group not take responsibility for their position of meekly accepting that they do not have to take any part for an overall social responsibility and just sit back and let Maori ‘fight’ back? The play, and what remains, may present an “absurd” premise, ie “sterilisation by stealth”, however, the mechanism by which this premise is brought about is, and has been active in this country for many years. This mechanism is not absurd, it is real, it works and has worked for many years to the benefit of the members of the dominant culture. How else have we reached this point where Maori have had to go, cap in hand, to the Waitangi Tribunal to seek redress for land loss; where kohanga reo are needed to reinvigorate the Maori language; and so on? Can the reviewer honestly say that he has experienced, lived with, has had to fight against such mechanisms to retain his identity and way of life? Maybe the underlying notion of this play is beyond his life reality, which in a way seems to support the premise of the play? May be the reviewer needs to suspend his beliefs and the way of life that those beliefs are based upon and open himself up to explore the possibilities that those of a minority group may have a totally different life experience than him. He may then start to grasp what life is like for Maori in this country and begin to understand what Miria George is attempting to expose.

Alice Te Punga Somerville August 29th, 2006

There's a part of me that doesn’t want to respond to this review with comments about the ridiculousness of demanding 'believability.' Instead, I'd love to write about the long and difficult conversations that this play prompted for me and the group of people with whom I went to Bats on Saturday night. I think there's a lot to be said about this play beyond this discussion of ‘would this happen in NZ’ but perhaps these conversations in which I would like to be involved have to happen elsewhere. Why? Because this review demands that we focus on his specific hang up about the believability of the premise. This demand is most explicit in the reviewer's later comment that characterises those who didn't respond with a knee-jerk "not here in Godzone!" as people who have "bought into" something. Dividing the audience into two neat groups (those who "buy into it" and those who don’t) indicates the crucial problem with this review: the play has been understood as some kind of a yes or no question. Yes: it's believable that this would happen in NZ. No: this wouldn't happen. What about asking another set of questions: some ‘why’ questions. For those who answered 'yes,' *why* does this feel so believable to me? *Why* is it not such a leap to connect these dots in this way and what does this tell me about myself and about this country? And for those who answered 'no,' *why* do I feel so comfortable dismissing this? *Why* do I feel so confident in my sense of how things work in NZ that when someone offers a different vision I can dismiss it so absolutely? At risk of engaging in a fact-slinging match, I do feel compelled to gesture towards the naivety of the claims about “inconceivability.” The UN has intervened in the Seabed and Foreshore issue, and look what’s happened there. International pressure looks different when it’s a predominantly white country doing the wrong thing: how much pressure has the NZ government been putting on Australia for its inhumane detention of refugees and asylum seekers? Finally, the recent (some claim ongoing) widespread forced/ coercive sterilisation of American Indian women in the US and women in Puerto Rico is well documented for those who have a commitment to finding out about such things. To me, this play asked deep questions about complicity. By responding to the issue of believability perhaps I’ve been complicit with a drive to detract attention from discussing the play on its own terms. On the other hand, I guess that other kind of discussion - that doesn't have to fixate on the yes or no question, with or without 'whys' - will have to happen elsewhere. Imagine: (at least) two simultaneous and distinct discussions about the play, each drawing on different kaupapa, different access to information and different contextual understandings. Funny thing is, that’s exactly what makes the play seem so believable.

John Smythe August 28th, 2006

Your examples, David, involve individual behaviour pitched at the level of fantasy or fear fulfilment, for social commentary, satirical and/or allegorical purposes. What’s different about the And What Remains scenario is that we are asked to credit the possibility of an entire country – our country – going along with this fascist edict in the name of equal opportunity for all. And even though wars are currently being fought in the name of similar oxymorons (“We’ll devastate your country to give you freedom!”), and even though I would love to suspend my disbelief sufficiently to gain more value from the play than I do, I find I cannot. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to hear from people who do buy into it and have therefore engaged at a different level. Please, share the experience …

David Lawrence August 28th, 2006

I’m baffled as to what makes the premise of And What Remains any more/less conceivable than anything else we’ve seen in recent theatre – for example, man has affair with a goat (The Goat); or man believes he can marry the daughter of the woman he’s been screwing (The Graduate)?

John Smythe August 28th, 2006

Thanks for that Roy - absolutely fair comment. The ATC's systematic commitment to development, of writers as well as their work, stands as a strong role model for others. Thanks for posting such clear and incontravertible evidence.

Roy Ward August 28th, 2006

John, in response to your closing paragraph: When theatre companies are limited to seven or eight mainbill productions a year there is a limit to how many ‘learning opportunities’ can be mounted. However, here is a list of new plays workshopped and presented as staged readings by Auckland Theatre Company in the years 2005 and 2006 (the last three are scheduled for September – November) Then Comes Love by James Griffin Drinking Games by Damien Wilkins Finding Murdoch by Margot McRae Backwards in High Heels by Stuart Hoar Being Here by Frances Edmond The Ocean Star by Michael Galvin The Venetian Bride by Robert Tripe The Oil Factor by Geoff Chapple Station to Station by Michael Galvin My Name is Gary Cooper by Victor Rodger The Woman Who Loved a Mountain by Pip Hall Predicament by Murray Lynch (from the novel by R.H. Morrieson) Where We Once Belonged by Dave Armstrong (from the novel by Sia Figiel) Mike and Virginia by Kathryn Burnett and Nick Ward The All Black The Model and the End of the World by Stuart Hoar Of these fifteen plays three were commissioned by Auckland Theatre Company; six are by first-time playwrights , six have gone on to extensive 1 or 2 week workshops and semi-staged presentations as part of our Final Draft or Next Stage seasons, and eight have subsequently been produced or are scheduled for production (by ATC or other companies). But I do not know that there are any obvious ‘blockbusters’ amongst them. Auckland Theatre Company’s Literary Unit is funded to develop scripts and is open to collaboration with other theatre companies which may currently lack the resources to invest in writers and their work.

Hugh Bridge August 27th, 2006

If pedantry is about noticing nonsense then let me join in the game - in an empathetic 'none so queer as folk' way of course. I just stumbled across the words to Maori Battalion which equates fighting till the last man dies with victory. Here is the opening verse followed by the chorus: In the days that have now gone when the Maoris went to war They fought and fought until the last man died for the honour of their tribe And so we carry on the conditions they have laid And as we go on day by day You will always hear us say... Maori Battalion march to victory Maori Battalion staunch and true Maori Battalion march to glory Take the honour of the people with you We will march, march, march to the enemy And we'll fight right to the end. For God! For King! And for Country! AU - E! Ake, ake, kia kaha e!

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