Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin

16/07/2009 - 25/07/2009

Production Details

The Bacchae of Euripides is the Greek tragedy that has spoken most powerfully to the experiences and values of our post-colonial world. Over the past forty years this play has inspired both new forms of theatre and radical insights into the emotional and spiritual consequences of cultural confrontation, of the turbulence created when currents meet. Hurai takes the form of Euripides’ play, its compact structure, choric shape and emotional dynamics, and fuses it with elements of Mâori waiata and dance to expose the nerve-ends of cultural conflict. 

The characters and setting of the play are unspecific, but based loosely on Papahurihia, an amalgam of European figures and some incidents in the literature. The Papahurihia movement originated around a somewhat mysterious figure (known also as Atua Wera, the red/ burning god) who, in the 1830s, led a counter-movement to the conventional christian mission based on a potent mixture of Old Testament and traditional Mâori lore. Calling themselves ‘Hurai’ (Jews), they reflected a commonly held notion that Mâori were the children of Shem, the lost tribe of Israel. 

Tragedy, as the Greeks developed it, is essentially the exposition (or exposure) of the emotional lives of individuals caught up in the interplay of forces greater than themselves. History is such a force. It encompasses both the impersonal thrust of cultural values and beliefs and the intensely personal experience of the individuals who resist or succumb to them, and who in doing so make their own small contributions to the shape of things to come.

Performed in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Moray Place, July 16 to 25 at 8pm.


Papa............................Maaka Pohatu
Thomas Keene............Mark Neilson
Agnes Keene...............Kitty August
Alexander Williams....John Watson
Pita.............................Josiah Samuel
Chorus........................Kiri Beeching, Hana Aoake, Hoani Samuel
Guitar.........................Drew Handcock

Costumes.................. Teresa Andrew
Poster Design............Sam Kellian
Te Reo Consultant.....Lachy Paterson


Compelling drama a stunner

Review by Barbara Frame 27th Jul 2009

This year’s University of Otago department of classics play has been produced in collaboration with the school of Māori studies and the department of theatre studies.  Drawing on Euripides’ Bacchae and 19th-century Māori prophetic movements, Dunedin writer Harry Love has produced a compelling drama.

Hurai means ”Jews”, and Papa (based loosely on Atua Wera, a prophetic leader who gained a following in the Bay of Islands in the 1830s) subscribes to some extent to the belief that Māori, the children of Shem, are the lost tribe of Israel. To be preached to by a Christian missionary is, therefore, laughable and insulting.

Papa and Thomas Keene, whose conventional vision is of an orderly Christian society, share a concept of the sacred, but their understandings of it differ greatly. As mutual incomprehension grows and seductive delights overcome some people but not others, the stage is set for tragedy of truly horrifying Greek proportions.

Everyone in this production performs magnificently. Maaka Pohatu is both relaxed and powerful as Papa. Mark Neilson demonstrates Keene’s rigid certainties, suggesting a plodding, unimaginative personality, Kitty August as Agnes Keene shows us a woman capable of defying Pakeha restraint, and Josiah Samuel, Kiri Beeching, Hana Aoake and Hoani Samuel, as cast and chorus, are endearing, yet incomprehensibly wild.

The most striking performance of all comes from John Watson as the Tiresias-like Alexander Williams. His long monologue near the end of the play, bringing out the full force of the tragedy, is almost unbearably moving.

Directed by Richard Huber and Simon O’Connor, Hurai is a must-see. Defying easy or comfortable analysis, it tells of the destructive potential of imported or enforced beliefs, and of the power and mystery of religious fervour. It stunned last night’s audience into appreciative, awed concentration on every word and movement.

It is one of the most powerful productions I have seen this year. Hurai runs until Saturday [26 July]. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Stripped back, declamatory drama

Review by Jonathan W. Marshall 17th Jul 2009

Apirana Taylor adapted Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children in 1995 as Whaea Kairau: Mother Hundred Eater. Brecht’s topic of a merchant family trailing European armies across a desolated landscape during the 30 Years War (1618-1648) translated well to the circumstances of the equally pointless and viciously internecine (and economically exploitative) Mâori Wars of 1845-1872. Now classical scholar Harry Love recasts Euripides’ Bacchae into 1830s New Zealand, with Hurai.   

At first sight, this seems a promising conceit. The Bacchae is one of a number of Classical plays—together with Medea—which deal with the conflict between two inimical models of civilisation, namely the matriarchal and violently ecstatic world of divine madness and of the prophetesses (the Bacchantes of the title, whose wildly indulgent and sensual worship is centred on the bisexual God of theatre, Dionysius), versus the ordered rationality of urban Athenian culture (the metropolitan men who worship Apollo). 

Hurai renders the Bacchantes as young, largely female followers of the charismatic Māori prophet, Papahurihia (here called Papa). Their Apollonian critic Pentheus becomes a rigorously disciplined Protestant missionary, Thomas. Rather than having the Dionysians win over and seduce Pentheus’ daughter, in Hurai, Thomas is betrayed by his white wife, Agnes.

As the stuff of drama, Love’s reworking of Classical models is exemplary—particularly with the potent spatial dynamics activated by directors Richard Huber and Simon O’Connor, and the impressive sense of presence manifest by the protagonists played by Maaka Pohatu (Papa) and Mark Neilson (Thomas).

The production is staged in an unassuming, impersonal room, with a low ceiling, at the back of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, lit simply by fluoros. This potentially claustrophobic environment works well with the declamatory text. The words of Pohatu and Neilson spring back from the walls and create a sense of the voice erecting a powerful but fluid space about each of the performers.

The performance occurs within a rectangle bounded by audience on either of the long sides, and this architecture of long diagonals and two bays which face each other off across a potently activated divide provides many moments of impressive, almost iconographic action. Papa and his entourage tend to reside at one end, gazing impassively but confidently at the (literally) buttoned-up Europeans opposite.

In one particularly powerful moment, Thomas stares at his rebellious wife (Kitty August) across one diagonal for what seems an age before she drops her head submissively. Even after this concession, O’Connor and Huber ensure we know that the battle is not over, since Thomas immediately responds by stepping forward on the diagonal and asking Agnes if she is feeling well, thus losing the authority he has just extracted.

Hurai‘s scenographic and dramatic rewards are manifold and impressive. Nevertheless, the full dramaturgical logic of what it means to translate Classical Greek models to the New Zealand colonial situation is not fully addressed and this creates a number of unsatisfying thematic and dramatic problems. Agnes is not—unlike her Classical analogue—the one who kills her Apollonian relation in a fit of religious ecstasy. Indeed, Thomas’ death does not ensue out of a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, nor even out of a battle between European versus Māori per se, but rather because Thomas intervenes within another conflict between rival Māori themselves—namely a ritualised revenge killing which Thomas attempts to prevent, thus leading to his own demise. 

Love fudges the issue of what, if any, responsibility Agnes has for this act. It is implied that she feasted on Thomas’ remains with her Dionysian/Hurai companions, though even here, it is not clear whether she was conscious at this time, or caught within the grips of something like the divine madness alluded to in the Classical text. Moreover, given that the historic Papahurihia and his followers synthesised Māori ideas with a radical interpretation of the Old Testament, seeing themselves as Jews or the chosen people of God (Hurai) under bondage by the Europeans, the logic of Dionysian possession and ecstatic religiosity fails to translate. 

Because of these and other shifts in location, Hurai cannot really be read as dramatising two alternative yet in some way equivalent and symmetrical models of society, as is the case with The Bacchae: the famous opposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian which has served as an inspiration for everyone from Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, through Jackson Pollock and Northrop Frye.

Rather, what we rather see is a more simplistic opposition of a near ‘innocent’, ‘natural’ and unrestrained (or unrepressed), near Edenic state (the Māori, albeit here with a rather violent and bloodthirsty form of natural innocence), versus a simplistically repressed, rationalist, Protestant tradition (European settlement). The Māori become, as in Jane Campion’s equally hackneyed depiction in The Piano, the agents who help release the repressed, ‘natural’ urges within the whites, and so Agnes becomes yet another of those colonists who ‘go native’ which were so beloved of late 19th century colonial fiction.

This schematic conflict between ‘natural Māori’ and ‘civilised Protestantism’ is further rammed home by the near infantilisation of the Māori chorus, the Hurai. Despite sporadic attempts to liken them to the comic buffoons of Greek Classical drama, until the closing scene, they do little other than giggle, appear insultingly naive, kneel and pray before anyone who tells them to do so, whether it is Papa or Thomas, and generally come across like some kind of caricature of the colonised subject as a child who needs the guidance of a charismatic leader. Under the veil of these aged colonial models, Māori civilisation—or indeed that of Dionysian Greece—never appears within the text.

This is, I admit, a rather ungenerous critical judgment, especially given how charismatic Papa himself appears within the work. The strongest scene is where Thomas, as though he were himself mildly hypnotised by Papa, engages in a complicated dialogue with the latter where the missionary styles himself as a new comic Christ, a kind of divine fool who will come down among the Hurai and take their sins upon his own ridiculously attired shoulders. Such moments as these more than compensate for other weaknesses in the piece. 

Nevertheless, overall one must conclude that Hurai is eminently successful as a theatrical endeavour and as a piece of stripped back, declamatory drama. As a possible model for post-colonial or bicultural theatre, however, the play-text is, at best, highly problematic if not mildly offensive in its depiction of Māori women. The way in which 19th century Māori culture was not entirely other to that of the Europeans, but rather represented a creative synthesis of ‘civilised’ evangelic Christian models and Māori concepts, is given relatively short shrift in a play-text which sketches the Māori as instinctual, natural beings, as was the case in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings of the 18th century and in most other historic colonial discourse on ‘the noble savage’. One would have hoped we had moved beyond such ideas in contemporary drama.

In this sense, Hurai does not compare well with other experiments such as the use of Japanese classical styles like the Noh theatre as a way of structuring dramas which might today speak to the history of colonialism in the Pacific and in so doing help offer a way forward. One need not expect all such plays like Hurai which deal with New Zealand’s history to follow such aims, but for this reviewer at least, I cannot help feeling an opportunity was missed.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.



Jonathan W. Marshall July 18th, 2009

Dear readers,

In my haste to post I ended up misrepresenting playwright Apirana Taylor's Brecht adaptation "Whaea kairau" as by Love. My appologies to all concerned. Nevertheless, "Whaea kairau" seems to me to represent a useful if not inescapable precedent for NZ colonial era adaptations of Euro-American classics,

Jonathan W. Marshall

[Correction now made in the review - ED]

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