I, George Nepia

Lawson Field Theatre, Gisborne

16/10/2014 - 18/10/2014

Suter Theatre, Nelson

20/10/2012 - 22/10/2012

Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland

21/03/2013 - 22/03/2013

Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

13/03/2013 - 18/03/2013

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

08/12/2011 - 17/12/2011

Carterton Events Centre, Wairarapa

18/10/2013 - 18/10/2013

Rudolf Steiner School Theatre, Christchurch

12/09/2013 - 14/09/2013

Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

20/09/2011 - 24/09/2011

Theatre Royal, TSB Showplace, New Plymouth

18/08/2013 - 18/08/2013

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

07/09/2011 - 16/09/2011

Nelson Arts Festival 2012

Auckland Fringe 2013

Auckland Arts Festival 2013

Christchurch Arts Festival 2011

Taranaki International Arts Festival 2013

Production Details

Welcome to the World Premiere Season of I, George Nepia! Circa Theatre, Wellington, is the home of this very special premiere as Tawata Productions presents the story of one of the world’s original sporting superstars.

“When I hear others debating who will play fullback for the Kingdom of Heaven versus the rest I turn to stone.  It is not me to question of whether Nepia was the best fullback in history.  It is a question of which of the others is fit to lace up his Cotton Oxford boots.” – Denzil Batchelor, English Rugby Journalist

St Helens, Swansea, Wales 1982.  The crowd roars as an elderly man dapper in a long coat, walks purposely out on to the field.  All stand and cheer as he acknowledges them.  Singing rises. He is George Nepia.

I, George Nepia celebrates the life of an East Coast boy who became one of the world’s most revered rugby players. A husband, a father, a fullback, a singer, a rebel – an invincible.

This stage play marks the return of internationally acclaimed Maori playwright Hone Kouka MNZM (Waiora, Nga Tangata Toa, The Prophet), accompanied in the lineup by Jason Te Kare (Waiora) making his directorial debut and featuring Jarod Rawiri (The Brothers Size) with a mesmerising solo performance.

Production Design is helmed by Rob Larsen (Apollo 13), with Miriama Ketu-McKenzie (The Lonesome Buckwhips) composing original music, emerging designer Cara Louise (Tu) creating costume and Wellington musician Karnan Saba (The Mourning After) building sound design.

This season is not to be missed! 

World Premiere Season:
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington
6pm / 2pm / 7th – 16th September
Bookings: www.circa.co.nz / 04 801 7992 

Auckland Season:
Q Theatre, 305 Queen St, Auckland
6pm / 20th – 24th September
Bookings: www.qtheatre.co.nz 

Wellington return season
Circa Two, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington 
7pm / 8th – 17th December 2011
Bookings: www.circa.co.nz / 04 801 7992  

Nelson Arts Festival 2012 
Suter Theatre 
20 – 22 October, 7pm 


I, George Nepia

Mahurangi College, Warkworth
Fri 8 Mar, 7.30pm
TICKETS: GA $35 / Friend/Conc/Group $29
BOOK AT: Warkworth Information Centre, 1 Baxter Street
THE EDGE: buytickets.co.nz, 09 357 3355 or 0800 289 842

Loft, Q Theatre
Wed 13 – Fri 15 Mar, 7.30pm; Sat 16 – Sun 17 Mar, 5pm; Mon 18 Mar, 6.30pm
TICKETS: GA $45 / Friend/ Conc/Group $41
BOOK AT: qtheatre.co.nz or 09 309 9771; THE EDGE: buytickets.co.nz; 09 357 3355 or 0800 289 842

Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku
Thurs 21 – Fri 22 March, 7pm; Sat 23 March, 1.30pm and 7pm
TICKETS: GA $35 /Friend/Conc/Group $29
BOOK AT: Mangere Arts Centre Box Office, or THE EDGE – buytickets.co.nz, 09 357 3355 or 0800 289 842 

Christchurch Arts Festival 2013
Thurs 12 – Sat 14 Sept, 6.30pm


Carterton Events Centre
Fri 18 October 2013, 8.30

I, George Nepia:  Journey to Gisborne  – 2014
Lawson Field Theatre

TIME: 7.30pm 
DATE: Thursday – Saturday 16 – 18 October 2014
TICKETS PRICES: $25-$15 (Booking Fees Apply)
WHERE: Lawson Field Theatre, Vogel St, Gisborne
BOOK: STEPHEN’S PHOTOPLUS, 119 Gladstone Rd, Gisborne

Writer            Hone Kouka
Dramaturg      John Vakidis
Director         Jason Te Kare
Actor            Jarod Rawiri
(Nelson 2012: 
Matariki Whatarau)

Costume Design         Cara Louise
Composer                   Miriama Ketu-McKenzie
Sound Design             Karnan Saba

Production Design             Robert Larsen
Projected Still Illustration   Thomas Hanover
Processing Programming Ben Jack
Researcher                       Challen Wilson
Technical Operation          Ulli Briese

Photography                      Matt Grace
Production Stills                 Aneta Ruth 
Archival Stills                     Cliff Porter Collection

Branding Design                Tukara Matthews
Publicity                             Sally Woodfield, SWPR

Production Manager          Ahi Karunaharan
Producer                           Miria George, Tawata Productions 

Theatre , Solo ,

1 hr 15 mins, no interval

Imagination, courage and talent make this simply great

Review by Juliet Blakeney 18th Oct 2014

A chair, a guitar, a backdrop and a man alone on a stage is all it takes for George Nepia’s life-changing experiences and dreams to be revealed to us all, the old, the young and the yet to come. 

I, Juliet Blakeney, a seventeen year-old school pupil, connect with this play which will never be out of date or lost to memories or archives. It will, I believe, always have an important place in our cultural development.

Jared Rawiri’s performance is outstanding, as befits the outstanding yet humble hero he plays. This script – written by Hone Kouka; directed by Jason Te Kare – is completely without pretension and with shrewd economy delves into many aspects and attitudes of our George and his times. 

The ‘story’ of the invincible All Blacks 1924 tour to Europe is a fascinating yarn that keeps the momentum going and fuels the audience’s curiosity. As the journey unfolds, George muses over other aspects of his life: his wife and always the son he is seeking to meet up with again; a son lost in a distant land in a theatre of war. 

The play is full of giggles and laughs revealing a very special East Coast humour, and although it is not without emotional depth and social commentary, the play has none of the ‘mental issues’ so prevalent in the pieces we study for school, and never gets bogged down in politics. 

George is a gorgeous man with attitude, imagination, courage and instinctive genius. I personally love the part when an American teaching at the Agricultural college George attended as a boy gives a simple demonstration of a spiralling football thrown as in gridiron. George turned this into a famous kicking technique that was soon adopted throughout the rugby world. The same teacher lets George into the secrets of really aggressive tackling that eventually made George in to the most famous full back, the best ever last line of defence.

It is hard to believe how great the play is, yet how simply it is produced. My interests within live theatre have well and truly taken a turn. I think young people should be encouraged to go, not only because it is a phenomenal production but because it demonstrates just what can be achieved with imagination, courage and talent. Bravo to all involved.


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Simply captivating

Review by Lindsay Clark 14th Sep 2013

It is the turn of Christchurch, home after all of the erstwhile Lancaster Park, to enjoy the pleasure of this well-crafted New Zealand play, directed and delivered with finely tuned finesse. It has been acclaimed wherever played and now we know why. 

For a start, it is a compelling solo exploration of a crowning experience in the life of a national rugby hero, the 30-match tour of the Invincibles in 1924. George Nepia was the only member of the team who could meet the demands of fullback, the “last line of defence” and so he alone played in every match. 

His journey starts way back on the farm and covers his shy beginnings as well as his awed response to the scale of the world beyond the farm gates. His pondering on the grandeur of the ocean is a clue to the essential strength and sensitivity of the man who will become a national hero. 

The stage is not inhabited only by the young Nepia, central though he is to the tour.  An engaging and often poignant character in the person of Nepia in his old age expands on the experience and comments on it, so that the whole is about more than rugby. It deals with the challenges of life itself, of loss, conquering fear, getting on with the job and giving a wry chuckle when that is all that can be done. 

Other characters, too, widen the focus – the coach, the best friend, a Welshman … They balance out the extremes of the young Nepia’s naiveté and dedication. They often lighten the mood where the intensity of the main character could be heading into dramatic doldrums, though such is the fluency and skill of the sole actor Jarod Rawiri that this state is never really likely. 

Credit is due too to the uncompromising set. A simple screen runs the width of the stage, with projected images tracking the journey or defining the immediate space in restrained and subtle images. Apart from that, the actor has a chair and a guitar to see him through the show. Responsible for set design, as well as AV and lighting, Robert Larsen is clearly well attuned to the writer’s perspective. The play benefits too from sympathetic sound designer (Karnan Saba), composer Miriama Ketu-McKenzie and costume from Cara Louise Waretini.

In terms of audience awareness though, it is Jarod Rawiri who captures warm applause. Physically and vocally he endows every moment with significance. Transitions from one character to another, especially from the young man to the old, are carried out with superb timing and delicacy. From ‘crabbed old age’ to the calculated grace of perfect moves on field, he is simply captivating. 

In an age of professional sport, where the “new cathedrals” perhaps attract worshippers of a new breed, the play reminds us of the sheer potency of love for the game, for the team and the whanau. It is an important message, spelled out with much charm.


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Definitively theatrical biography

Review by Nik Smythe 14th Mar 2013

An elderly Maori gent enters an empty football stadium and sits expectantly for some sort of arranged meeting.  Old man George (not Hori, despite what his legendary Invincibles teammates might say) Nepia has lived a full and rewarding life, and while he waits he cheerfully reminisces …

I recall first learning of Nepia when I saw his This Is Your Life special in 1986, shortly before his death as it sadly turned out, despite how fit and healthy he appeared.*  As he sits and dreams, chuckling to himself as he remembers, actor Jarrod Rawiri perfectly captures the essence of the man himself in his twilight years: frail with age, but with a quietly strong, merrily dignified spirit.

Hone Kouka’s respectful script has a distinctly ethereal tone to it, eschewing the straightforward biographical approach and instead wafting, as it does, on the warm Pacific breeze of George’s mind.  Reminiscing from his East-Coast youth all the way through his ‘extraordinary comic-book life’, Nepia also nods reverently to all the great players that succeeded him, showing particular envy for their choice in boots.

The narrative is primarily concerned with his inaugural global tour with the All Blacks in 1924 at the tender age of nineteen, in which he was the only team member to play in every one of over thirty matches. 

That said, and as the play’s title suggests, this is not a story about rugby as such.  It is about a simple, gracious man, an astounding player of rugby who, in doing so achieved so much in his life during an age when the majority of his fellow Maori had few if any such opportunities. 

The gently ponderous and unhurried manner of Jason Te Kare’s direction belies the depth and breadth covered in a mere 75 minutes.  Classic anecdotes abound such as how dodging hostile cattle on the farm informed his footwork and his understanding of the ‘need to read a game’.  The scene in which he first samples Champagne reminded my young son of a ‘Maori version of Mr. Bean’.

Besides the title role, Rawiri plays a handful of distinct characters that helped shape Nepia through his early rise to rugby super-stardom.  These include his abiding friend and even-younger teammate Lui Paewai**, an amusingly highly-strung coach who simultaneously teaches him both to think and to not, and an American colleague who trained him in the tackling style that contributed to his enduring legendary status. 

The production design of Robert Larsen continues the ethereal motif in its evocative lighting and sparse set: one chair, one guitar, and a wide screen at the back displaying images of Nepia, his hometown and a well-appointed selection of rudimentary stylised geographical line-drawings by Thomas Hanover.  

Composer Miriama Ketu-McKenzie and Karnan Saba’s intrinsic sound design complete the elemental ingredients for affecting theatre, moving but not tragic, light-hearted yet profound.  In other words, yet another glowing review for this return season of Tawata’s definitively theatrical biography. 
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
* Presently online as fortune would have it: http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/this-is-your-life-george-nepia-1986 

** Although Nepia’s birth certificate says he was born in 1905, he himself allegedly claimed to be born in 1908.  Could this possibly be an uncharacteristic attempt to usurp Paewai’s glory as the youngest ever All Black? Seems unlikely, but why the discrepancy then?  


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Issues overcome in true trouper tradition

Review by Gail Tresidder 21st Oct 2012

After a good thirty minutes delay while feverish attempts were made by the crew to “sort out an audio-visual problem,” this most anticipated Festival event opens more with a whimper than a bang.  Although vaguely irritating for the full house audience it must be very difficult indeed for Matariki Whatarau, waiting backstage to debut his first New Zealand performance as George Nepia in the role for which his predecessor, Jarod Rawiri, received the Chapman Trip Theatre Actor of the Year 2011 Award.

For most of the play’s duration this issue is seemingly not resolved. There is a vague impression of Nepia’s home village then an even vaguer illusion of waves and for most of the play’s duration the long lines of panels remain empty. 

Whatarau carries on anyway with just a chair, a white cloth, his guitar and his hat to help him, and rises above it in true trouper tradition.

Luckily the sound component remains.  The hustle and bustle of busy city streets is effective and a loud and stirring version of the Welsh National Anthem – ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’, ‘The Land of my Fathers’ – a highlight, the audience singing along enthusiastically. 

As Nepia, an old man looking back on his life, Whatarau is excellent.  We believe in him, he is real. As Nepia, the young man, who “has no thoughts on strategy, he just plays” Whatarau is less convincing and seemingly, less comfortable, especially with the challenging balletic rugby moves he has to perform on an empty stage. 

However, he reaches out to us when describing his meeting with wife Huinga (her namesake, George Nepia’s grand-daughter, in is the audience tonight) and how he learnt strategy on the rugby field by thinking of his opponents as various stock – bulls, sheep, etc. 

Only a few days ago three full house audiences were impressed and delighted with Matariki Whatarau in his various roles in Party with the Aunties. He was joyful as he acted, sang and played his guitar.  As George Nepia, serenading us with ‘Under the Maori Moon’, he appears a little strained and again this is likely the result of things going wrong and the ensuing nervous-making delay. 

There are two more performances. Hopefully the a.v. situation will be sorted and Matariki Whatarau, this fine young actor, shall deliver a sparkling performance of one of our all time greats who was also a lovely humble man.


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Lyrical and layered; lovingly and simply told

Review by Helen Sims 15th Dec 2011

Prior to seeing I, George Nepia, all I knew about George Nepia was that he was a member of the All Blacks team known as ‘The Invincibles’.  I knew he was accorded the status of a rugby legend, but I didn’t know why. 

Tawata’s production of I, George Nepia answers those questions, as well as allowing a degree of enigma behind the legend to remain.  Although those with a high degree of rugby history knowledge will enjoy watching memorable match moments acted out, and the imaginings of behind the scenes of sporting triumph, this is a deeply human story and no prior knowledge is necessary.

Jarod Rawiri is perfectly cast as Nepia.  He is able to change seamlessly from the teenage Nepia, nervously excited and wide-eyed on his voyage to England with the All Blacks, to the elderly man looking back on his life.  Several times Rawiri assumes the characters of important figures in Nepia’s life: his teammate Lui Paewai, coaches and, briefly, his wife.  The performance also oscillates from being highly naturalistic to stylised as he acts out his defensive manoeuvres.   

I’m not sure whether a lyrical turn of phrase is reflective of the way Nepia spoke, or whether it is more attributable to Hone Kouka’s pen.  Either way, the script is rich with poetry and humour.  The script is an excellent balance of retrospective story-telling and action in the present.  Important issues of racism, poverty and family are lightly but deftly dealt with, with the story always remaining deeply personal.

The simple but effective set and audio-visual design by Rob Larsen allows Rawiri’s performance and the character of Nepia to be the focus of the production.  Jason Te Kare’s subtle and unfussy direction is also to be applauded.  Every detail is carefully selected. Nepia’s story is lovingly and simply told by the company in a production that allows him to shine. 

An image of Nepia’s face, with remarkably sad eyes, is projected at the beginning of the show.  When the same image is projected at the end of the show, I had some insight into what might be going on behind those eyes.  I emerged from Tawata Productions beautiful production with a view of Nepia as a teenage prodigy, husband, father, sports hero, singer and unwitting poet. 

If this production is symptomatic of the relationship between Circa and Tawata, then I hope it continues for a long time to come.  


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Pure New Zealand theatre at its absolute best

Review by Tamati Patuwai 22nd Sep 2011

E Hika ma, he mihi mutunga kore aku ki a koutou puukenga hei whakawhanake te Rangatira nei ki te ao whanui. Ka huri oku mihi ki a koe e Papa George, na o tauiratanga i puta mai ki a matou nga uri whakatipu. Tenei te mihi whakahonore atu ki a koe me o whanau whanui.

E Hone, kua rukuhia e tenei pia nga wharangi me nga papamahi i whakawhaarikihia nei e koe. Ina whakaputa mai koe tetahi atu taonga, ka whakatairanga koe i te taumata, no reira he whakamihi tenei ki o matatau.

In the midst of World Cup fervour and given the subject of the play, George Nepia, it could’ve been very easy to present this play with the noise of thousands of fans and flashing lights creating an almost supernatural heroic figure. However the Tawata team have given an incredibly appropriate and touching rendition of Nepia: NZ icon and small town Maori boy.

I, George Nepia is the latest theatrical offering from the emerging Maori Theatre troupe Tawata Productions. Though this piece is only their fourth creation, Tawata is led by Maori Theatre veteran and consummate playwright Hone Kouka, so I wouldn’t quite say that this line-up are newcomers.

Right from the kick off this sombre yet refreshing piece of theatre delighted a welcoming opening night audience. Sombre and refreshing in the same instance might seem contradictory to many. However within the context of traditional Maori oratory it is general practice to move in and out of different emotional realms which allows full experience of a story or subject matter. This is how I regard the latest of Kouka’s plays, as a high level of literary and oratorical virtuosity. 

Together with the other punters in Q Theatre’s Loft a gentle and meaningful experience was certainly had by all; again a possible contradiction in terms given the main theme being one of the most legendary All Blacks in history. This enigmatic flow of light and dark gives a perfect illustration to Kouka’s masterful pen strokes, albeit on computer.

My impression of Kouka as I observed this play was that of a nimble writing hand whose love for the subject and mastery of the form allowed poetic layers to emerge, to spill over and to dive into each other with a seamless eloquence that only masters achieve. Tena koe e Hone. It was truly an honour to experience your work again.

One must also make a point of the strategic alignment of this memorial piece to All Black fame in the midst of the most significant sporting Rugby event in New Zealand’s history. The planning and positioning it would have taken for this to land in the middle of Auckland at this very time has obviously taken some hard work and vision. I congratulate and thank Tawata for placing this cherry on top of our nation’s current experience. See this play to finish off the delights that are the Rugby World Cup. 

Jason Te Kare as debut director has made careful decisions on how to mirimiri this play into being. With a strong technical crew Te Kare presents a complementary treatment design for the text and performance. Very nearly neon lines across a blackdrop fade into charcoal smudges and archival photo, all of which imply an understated presence of things past, felt but not quite seen.

Te Kare, an actor himself, has also given clear sensitivity to the needs of a monologue performance, giving an empty field for Jarod Rawiri, the tiwaiwaka who plays Nepia, to passage and morph into Kouka’s distinctively moving characters. It is evident again in this play that Rawiri is one of Maoridom’s most important talents. Technical skill and emotional intelligence make this extremely gifted performer a force of acting inspiration. Aue te miharo o te ‘white handkerchief’ e hoa. 

Needless to say from the beginning to the three curtain calls brought on by a hugely impressed and appreciative audience I enjoyed the play very much. I, George Nepia is pure New Zealand theatre at its absolute best. Thank you again Tawata for your reverent and poignant mihi. 

Heoi ano,e oku hoa pumau, ka rahi aku tangi ki o koutou mahi rangatira, o mahi whakahonore atu ki a tatou tupuna. Tena koutou katoa.   
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Calm, poetic homage to a wide-eyed hero

Review by Janet McAllister 22nd Sep 2011

Gentle Nepia portrait glides past sticky issues but gives us sportsmen just how we like them  

I want to be a rock in the river of history, changing its flow, muses Jarod Rawiri as George Nepia in this calm, poetic, almost transcendental homage to the 1924 Invincibles fullback. Then he shrugs and says he’s no rock, he’s just a “pebble”.

This beautifully unhurried one-man play – less an event-recording biography and more of a character sketch – is full of such self-effacement. Wide-eyed, George is astonished he’s “seen as a hero because of what [he] could do with a rugby ball – a piece of pig skin!” [More]   
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Lyrical tribute to Nepia

Review by Lynn Freeman 20th Sep 2011

Back when our All Blacks were invincible, and were adored and respected for playing for the love of the game as amateurs, came heroes like George Nepia. As part of the Invincibles he was one of just two Maori on the team and aware that his colour was a barrier. But he broke through with his natural athleticism, great good humour, enthusiasm, tactical skills and mana to become a hero for generations to come.

Hone Kouka has written a lyrical and deeply affecting tribute to Nepia. He entrusted his exquisitely written script to director Jason Te Kare and actor Jarod Rawiri and together these three make a formidable team.

Te Kare has in Rawiri an actor who moves with the strength of a rugby player and the grace of a dancer. He engages with the audience from the first moment he gazes out at us with the affection of a grandfather. One moment Rawiri is Nepia at the end of his life, standing on a field of possibilities, where he is immersed in memories as he awaits an important meeting. He shakes his head when he thinks how being able to throw and kick a ball made out of leather changed his life, from farmhand to sporting hero. In a flash Rawiri becomes young Nepia, a 19 year old determined to change the flow of history, just for a moment.

Kouka avoids a simple chronology, instead we follow Nepia’s stream of consciousness as he goes back and forth in time. Helping us keep up with the timeshifts is the video backdrop of line drawings which transform from the sea to the stadium.

At one-and-a-quarter hours, this is a succinct and poetic play. We could do with more flesh on the bones of his wife and children and his time in Nuhaka but that’s a minor point in a play that reminds us of a great man who was at once ambitious and genuinely humble. 
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Moving tribute to rugby legend beautifully balanced

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 12th Sep 2011

Hone Kouka’s loving portrait of possibly the greatest rugby player this country has produced is a fine piece of solo theatre: simple, direct, wryly comic, and with a poetic touch that allows us, with the aid of Jarod Rawiri’s polished and technically assured performance of many characters and Jason Te Kare’s brilliant direction and Robert Larsen’s production design, to believe that we know the man behind the legend.

A great deal of the play takes place on the ship taking the All Blacks to England when Nepia was only 19 years old. His enthusiasm and his naïveté for the journey is humorously contrasted with the more sophisticated approach of his fellow Hawke’s Bay rugby mate, Lui Paewai, who is not amazed by flying fish or the engineering marvels of the Panama Canal or the moon disappearing into the Pacific.

But interwoven with these scenes are flashbacks into Nepia’s schooling and upbringing as well as flashforwards to the present with Nepia’s ghost sitting in the Westpac Stadium pondering on the one major tragedy of his life. He is also envious of today’s rugby players because they have decent boots. Past and present flow seamlessly back and forth, each change subtly made by Jarod Rawiri whose only prop throughout the 75-minute performance, apart from a chair, is a large linen napkin.

The back for the stage is covered by a hessian screen onto which a beautifully designed painting of Nepia’s tiny home town, maps, symbolic moving patterns, a grainy 1924 newsreel, and a large photo of the handsome sportsman are projected without ever taking the attention away from Jarod Rawiri as he presents such people as Lui Paewai, senior All Blacks and the American Mormon elder at the Maori Agricultural College who taught Nepia the spiral kick.

While his prowess on the rugby field rightly takes centre stage (by the way, you don’t have to be a rugby fanatic to enjoy the play) his problems with being banned by the NZRFU for turning to League in the U.K.to earn much needed money in the Depression, his exclusion from the 1928 All Black tour of South Africa probably on racial grounds, and his tough childhood, are mentioned but not stressed.

However, his way with words and music, his modesty, his athleticism, and his relationship with his wife and family are stressed but they are all beautifully balanced in this portrait that Hone Kouka conceived and Jarod Rawiri performs so skillfully and movingly. 
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A superbly natural taonga

Review by John Smythe 08th Sep 2011

First the welcomes: to Hone Kouka for his first stage play in seven years; to Jason te Kare in his stage directing debut; to Jarod Rawiri with his beautifully minimalist physical theatre skills – and, through the agency of all three, to George Nepia (1905-86), Rangitukia farm boy and legendary All Black fullback (1924-30).

It takes supreme skill and a quiet confidence to distil this life-story, involving iconic moments of rugby history, down to a 75 minute solo performance, abetted by some equally simple and very effective design elements – helmed by Robert Larsen with Cara Louise Waretini (costume), Karnan Saba (sound) – and original piano composition by Miriama Ketu-McKenzie.

The supernatural premise is that octogenarian George has arrived at the Westpac Stadium (a.k.a. the Cake Tin, built more than a decade after his death), the rugby equivalent of the Pearly Gates, in the hope of meeting up with his son who predeceased him, thanks to the war in Malaya.  Thus Rawiri approaches it with the relaxed air of one who has left the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune behind and looks back on his life with a gentle amusement while anticipating a reunion with one that matters more than all that.

On opening night members of the Nepia whanau were as viscerally connected to the unfolding story as were veteran stalwarts of the rugby fraternity. It’s fair to say that the more you know about George Nepia’s personal and sporting life, the more you will get from this play. But even if you have no pre-knowledge the essential human story will be clear, intriguing and (I predict) moving.  

With compelling subtlety, as they set out on what will become known as the Invincibles Tour of 1924/25, Rawiri contrasts young Nepia’s innocent abroad with the less wide-eyed attitude of that other teenage prodigy, Lui Paewai. The rigours of training and the stylised moves of Nepia’s consummate game are beautifully rendered, as is his romance with wife-to-be Huinga Kohere.

There is an effortless flow between characters, time-frames and locations that belies the hard work that must have gone into creating this piece. Kouka’s words flow easily too, often supporting rather than leading the physicality that is so memorable in the aftermath.

The sea voyage is ingeniously indicated with a gentle flow of wavy lines across the backing panels of scrim, judiciously punctuated with a time-line gliding across a rudimentary map. A line drawing indicates the agricultural college where Nepia was trained by an American – and adapted his spiral gridiron pass to pioneer the spiral punt. A naïve painting (by Thomas Hanover) evokes the old home land of Rangitukia.  

The hardships of Nepia’s childhood, his being excluded from the 1928 tour of South Africa on racial grounds, and his being excommunicated by the NZRFU for turning to Rugby league in England to make a living during the Depression are lightly sketched in, leaving us to ponder the ingrained injustice of it all.

If it took the Rugby World Cup and the associated REAL NZ Festival to bring this play into being, we have a lot to thank them – and venue host Circa Theatre – for. In I, George Nepia, Tawata Theatre has created a theatrical taonga. It’s only on until Friday next (16 September) – don’t miss it. 
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Paul McLaughlin September 12th, 2011

 I saw this yesterday and it's easily the best theatre I've seen in a long, long time. The crafting of the text, the skill in direction; the dedication in performance - thanks to the creatives who made this wonderous and touching piece. Kia ora tatou.

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