And What Remains
25/08/2006 - 02/09/2006
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.
Set design, Tony De Goldi
Costume design, Natalia Huaki Gwizdizardski
Lighting design (& operation), Rob larsen
Sound design, Stephen Gallagher.
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.]
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
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.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer