MICHAEL JAMES MANAIA

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

25/02/2012 - 04/03/2012

Centrepoint, Palmerston North

10/03/2012 - 17/03/2012

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

01/09/2012 - 01/09/2012

Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

05/09/2012 - 15/09/2012

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

02/02/2013 - 16/02/2013

New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012

Production Details


Written by John Broughton
Directed by Nathaniel Lees

Taki Rua Productions


“This play has become one of the icons of New Zealand theatre.” The Dominion Post

Twenty years after it burst onto the stages of the world, John Broughton’s iconic New Zealand play Michael James Manaia returns for its Festival encore.

Taki Rua Productions’ Michael James Manaia is the poignant story of a New Zealander who returns home from the Vietnam War to find himself at odds with his culture, his history and his memories. We follow his journey through childhood, family, love, grief, violence, conflict and passion.

After premiering at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in 1991, this heart-wrenching one-man show went on to the Edinburgh Festival and celebrated performances across the globe. Michael James Manaia is directed by the award-winning Nathaniel Lees and stars Te Kohe Tuhaka in the title role. Tuhaka’s recent film and television highlights include Billy, Waitangi: What Really Happened and Go Girls. His stage credits include Silo Theatre’s acclaimed production of The Brothers Size.

Taki Rua’s new vision of Michael James Manaia crosses the generations, proving to be as insightful and relevant today as when it was first written. Raw, humorous and unsentimental in its telling, Michael James Manaia is a theatrical experience quintessentially of, and about, Aoteoroa.

The 2012 Downstage Solos include Circle of Eleven’s Leo, Royale Productions’ Frequently Asked Questions and Taki Rua’s Michael James Manaia.

Michael James Manaia
at Downstage Theatre
from 25 February to 4 March
Tickets $43 – $48 available from Ticketek.

Downstage Members will receive Friends of the Festival discount for Michael James Manaia by booking at any Ticketek agency or box office using their Downstage Members’ Society card.

We are also proud to announce that this production will be participating in the 2012  Melbourne Festival!

Returning for a second national  tour in 2012, Michael James Manaia will be coming to stages in the following cities;

Wellington
Downstage
1 Sep 2012
Taki Rua is presenting two tour fundraiser performances of Michael James Manaia at Downstage (3pm & 7.30pm), to raise money towards freight, airfares and accommodation. Tickets are $30 ($25 concession) and are available from www.downstage.co.nz or 801-6946.

Auckland
Q Theatre
5th – 15th of September

Whangarei
Capitaine Bougainville Theatre
18th & 19th September

New Plymouth
Theatre Royal
22nd & 23rd September

DUNEDIN 2013

Fortune Theatre
2 – 16 February 2013 

Opening Night / Saturday, 2 February 7.30pm, Fortune Theatre.

Member’s Briefing / Sunday, 3 February meet at the Fortune bar at 3.00pm and join Fortune Theatre Artistic Director Lara Macgregor for a lively informal chat about Michael James Manaia

Forum / Tuesday, 5 February Q & A session with the cast and crew post 6.00pm show.

Fortune Sociable Club / Wednesday, 6 February meet in the bar at 6.30pm and meet like-minded individuals and get connected.

Lunchtime Bites / Thursday, 7 February meet at 12.15pm in the Dunedin Public Library, ground floor. Te Kohe Tuhaka will perform an excerpt from Michael James Manaia with an opportunity to win tickets. Reading will commence at 12.30pm followed by afternoon tea. This is a FREE event.

Audio Described Performance / Sunday, 10 February an audio described performance offered in collaboration with Experience Access for visually impaired patrons and friends. Audio Described Touch Tour at 2.30pm before 4pm matinee. Bookings essential. 


CAST:  Te Kohe Tuhaka


Set & Costume Design:  Dan Williams
Lighting Design:  Lisa Maule
Sound Design:  Maaka McGregor
Production Manager:  Nathan McKendry / Helena Coulton (Dunedin)
Stage Manager:  Amber Maxwell / Jennifer Aitken (Dunedin)


Theatre , Solo , Te Ao Māori ,


2hrs

Play’s power unchanged

Review by Barbara Frame 08th Feb 2013

In 1991 Michael James Manaia, by Dunedin playwright John Broughton, erupted on to New Zealand stages. Twenty-two years later, in Taki Rua’s production, directed by Nathaniel Lees, its force is as potent as ever.

The action, and there is much of it, takes place on a set that looks like a place of incarceration – whether actual or metaphorical is for the audience to decide. Consumed by anger, grief and much else, the play’s sole character tells the story of his life. In the first act we learn of a repressive, violent upbringing and the death of a brother – paralleled in the second by the repressive, violent culture of the army, the death of a mate in the brutally nonsensical Vietnam War, and that war’s later, noxious consequences for Manaia.

One of the first things he learns in the Army is that “you didn’t have to think” – a cruel lesson for a soldier who will spend the rest of his life thinking both too much and not enough.

All of this depends on actor Te Kohe Tuwhaka. His performance is of an intensity that left Saturday night’s audience stunned and emotionally drained. It is never static, reflecting his character’s inner turbulence, and occupies the entire stage, vertically as well as horizontally. He is supported by sensitive lighting and by music that effortlessly evokes the Vietnam era.

This not a play for everyone (the warning “contains sexual references and offensive language” is there for a reason), but it is a play for most of us. If you go you may, like the students who accompanied me to see Jim Moriarty in the 1991 production, be overcome its raw, shocking power.

The short season will end on February 16.

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Takes no prisoners

Review by Terry MacTavish 03rd Feb 2013

The image flashed onto the canvas of the stage set is instantly recognisable: the little girl’s face is frozen in a scream of pain and terror as she flees a napalm attack, her thin body naked, burning.  That photo sent us into the streets to march against the war in Vietnam, and it still has the power to shock, as did news of the massacre at My Lai.  All those clean-cut lads become killing machines, trained to see the enemy and the peasants who sheltered them as sub-human, ending by raping and murdering children. 

1971, and I was making angry protest theatre with fellow students, utilising another news photo, of grinning GIs posing with chopped-off Vietnamese heads.  My flower-power generation had a message to give the establishment, and what more exciting way than agitprop theatre?  I don’t think I felt a vestige of sympathy for those young soldiers, many of them conscripts. 

1991, and a playwright who has thought deeply about the role of the soldier writes a play brought to stunning life by Jim Moriarty as Maori Vietnam veteran Michael James Manaia. At the shocking conclusion it is impossible to withhold compassion. I find myself forced to question my own assumptions: a mark of really good theatre. It can be hard to accept that those we despise might also be those we must honour: the challenge of the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

2013, and John Broughton’s dynamic script, directed by Nathaniel Lees for Taki Rua Theatre, and performed by Te Kohe Tuhaka, is as electrifying and as appallingly relevant as ever.  In front of the pictures of protesters and bombed children, Tuhaka welcomes us with a dignified karakia, and then plunges barefoot into one of the most demanding roles in New Zealand theatre.  It is a dazzling performance – yes, a tour de force – demonstrating the high courage of a battle charge.

This time there is no question about feeling empathy for Michael James, even though the play focuses unashamedly on male experience.  I had forgotten how much humour is inherent, or that the whole first half deals with memories of his parents and boyhood.  Long before he is a soldier we are on his side, as he depicts hilariously the characters that peopled his childhood, from his Pakeha gran treating him with gingerbread men to his Maori gran revelling in the whitebait season. 

His harsh father is there too, a man haunted by another, earlier war about which he cannot speak, but for which his sons suffer. Behind the laughter lies the shadow of the horror of warfare, the damage to each generation. 

Powerfully built and exceptionally fit, Tuhaka is as fluid in movement as he is fluent in speech.  Sometimes his patter is akin to that of a stand-up comic, and so quick it is just as well his flexible body, gleaming with sweat, enhances the story in lightning-fast transitions.  He shifts mood smoothly from bawdy tales in the style of Chaucer’s “Nicholas the Spark let fly a monstrous fart” to a splendidly ritualistic interpretation of Maui fighting the Goddess of Death, Hine-nui-te-poi. 

With consummate ease he flips from a melodious snatch of 70s pop song or infectious giggle, to holding his audience spellbound in the intense gaze that has made the striking poster a sought-after trophy.

Even in the second half, when the consequences of his father’s brutal rule have driven Manaia to join the army, we are never far from laughter.  “Where is your name tag, soldier?” – “I memorised it and destroyed it, sir!”  But Vietnam awaits, vividly depicted, the awful injuries to comrades, the even more horrific effects on the children of Vietnam; and always the foreshadowing of the hideous consequences to MJ himself of his contact with the USA’s potent weapon, Agent Orange.*

The crew has provided superb support.  Daniel Williams’ set is an effective arrangement of rough wood platforms, and Lees’ direction makes imaginative use of it.  The different heights inspire marvellously choreographed and flawlessly executed action, some of it thrillingly dangerous.  Manaia’s khaki boilersuit suggests army uniform, sleeves at times knotted round the waist to reveal a black singlet, that most fundamental and versatile item of Kiwi garb.

With one lone figure carrying such a complex story the lighting is crucial, and designer Lisa Maule does not disappoint.  Accompanied by loud insect song, light filtered through palm leaves creates a frightening jungle, but my favourite illusion is the angel icon, made by the tiniest spotlight ever, held tenderly in MJ’s hands.  At climactic moments, the whole theatre is actually shuddering with the obscene soundscape of war. (Sound design by Maaka McGregor.)

Michael James Manaia marks a bold start to the Fortune’s enterprising 2013 programme, which is a daring mix of gritty, challenging drama for the brave, with light-hearted, feel-good comedy for the masses.  Deservedly an Aotearoa classic, this particular play manages to combine both.  One way or another, it will get you.  Like the soldiers in Vietnam’s treacherous jungles, Michael James Manaia takes no prisoners.
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*Potent indeed. If you hold a handful of sticky rice in an Asian river, my well-travelled guest tells me later, and it turns green, you know the water is poisoned still.  

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Terry MacTavish February 6th, 2013

Well, from a wordsmith like you, that really slays me! Thanks, David.

David Geary February 4th, 2013

Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your review, and how  it made me want to see the show. That comment about the sticky rice turning green is a killer.

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Compelling but nerve-racking

Review by Janet McAllister 09th Sep 2012

The music sets the tone for this excellent, troubling Taki Rua revival, even before all the audience has arrived. The melody is jaunty, but the lyrics jar with that bubbliness: “I don’t know what to do / I feel so helpless.” The sharp shadows of palisades in the gloom add to the foreboding – as does the deliberate ricketiness of Daniel Williams’ intriguing set; later on, its rafts of sticks seem to threaten lone performer Te Kohe Tuhaka with impalement at every turn.

This play sits within the Maori family heavy-drama genre; however, the external crisis is wrought not by dealings with Pakeha, but with war. The title character is a Vietnam veteran in a boiler suit, weaving his own history through with certain Ngati Kahungunu myths – stories of twisted families, tricksters and Hine-nui-te-po. [More

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Homage to a Maori Theatrical Classic

Review by Tamati Patuwai 06th Sep 2012

Tuatahi ka mihi ake ki te Tahuhu o te Whare Ao. He whakaruruhau ia e Manaaki ana ki o tatou tini whetuu i whakarerea ki runga. No reira, koutou ra e piataata na, oki atu ra ki raro i te parirau o te Atua.

20 years ago I had the honour of enjoying this colossal Maori one man show at Auckland’s Watershed Theatre. In what has proven to be one the most enigmatic and thrilling performances in NZ Theatre history, the role of Michael James Manaia at that time was thrust into the world with hard out supremacy by none other than Jim Moriarty. Heoi ano e Toa kei runga noatu koe.

The restaging of John Broughton’s deeply influential Maori play, which opened last night in Auckland at Q Theatre’s Loft, remains packed with forceful dramatic power as Vietnam war veteran ‘Mr Manaia’ unveils his turbulent and disastrous life before us.

Set in the late eighties, this tragic story shows Manaia wrestling with memories of abuse, the death of his brother and the torments of being a soldier in Vietnam.  

Te Kohe Tuhaka carries the dynamic character of Manaia with determination and proficiency. The ability to maintain the complexities of a man fluctuating between psychosis and hilarity is no mean feat and though at times there is the occasional stumble in character regularity, an almost 2 hour solo performance can only be applauded. 

Dan Williams’ cement-like treatment of the stage with broken, floating palisade islands is a strong and complementary symbol. 

In general this homage to a Maori theatrical classic is timely and no doubt, as was evident last night, will be well received. 

Finally in connection to the grace and tapu of Taki Rua’s respectful performance it is fitting to acknowledge all of our warriors, old and new, who have died with honour.  

No reira haere atu koutou ki tua o te arai, ki te kapunipunitanga o tatou te Ira Tangata. 
“Apiti hono tatai hono, nga hunga wairua ki a ratou
Apiti hono tatai hono nga hunga ora ki a tatou”

Kia Ora tatou katoa.

Na Tamati Patuwai 

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A richly textured modern classic

Review by John Smythe 03rd Sep 2012

Grief, guilt and anger is a potent cocktail and because it shocks us with its insights, truth and humanity, it produces bursts of comedy too. I rarely resort to ‘tour de force’ to describe a performance but here, how better to describe Te Kohe Tuhaka’s compulsive (for him) and compelling (for us) tour of duty through the tormented mind of Michael James Manaia.  

Having seen it during this year’s NZ International Arts Festival, the first thing to note about the brief fund-raising return to Downstage of this Taku Rua production, directed by Nathaniel Lees – en route to Auckland, Whangarei, New Plymouth and Melbourne – is that it is 25 minutes shorter, plays without an interval and is even better for it.

Tuhaka is himself when he greets us and offers a karakia; on the outside looking in at the space he will inhabit as MJM – or “Mick the Dick” as he has been known, “for obvious reasons.” Set designer Daniel Williams’ simple slatted platforms, Lisa Maul’s ‘te ao / te po’ lighting and Maaka McGregor’s less-is-more soundscape combine – in the sure hands of operator Matt Eller – to transport us instantly into the story’s many locations, moods and moments in time.

The clear line of crossover into role and out again makes it a safe experience, yet highly stimulatory of all the senses, for Tuhaka and for us. As with most good political theatre, we are not asked to wallow in MJM’s emotions and mindlessly share his totally subjective viewpoint but to observe, empathise and critically appraise their causes. This is a play and production which respects its characters and its audiences by exposing truths at many levels and leaving us to judge.

It is hard to tell whether my recent experience of it (let alone my recall of the Colin McColl-directed 1991 world premiere at Downstage with Jim Moriarty) makes me more consciously alert to seeded moments than a first time viewer might be. I am also old enough to remember the stark black & white images of children fleeing napalm and planes dropping Agent Orange, that helped raise public awareness of the atrocities of the Vietnam War while it was still happening. Not to mention the “slit-eyeD bastards” rhetoric that was fed to the ‘fodder’ at the time, to turn them into the killing machines they needed to be to survive (or not). 

The order “This way, please!” from a disembodied voice is as ambiguous as the race through hospital corridors, the baby cry, the reaching hands are vivid… This is the action that bookends the substantive play and provides the context for MJM’s obsessive revisiting of all that has led up to this moment. And he does so by remaining true to ‘where he was at’ at the time, leaving the retrospective questions implicit, for himself and for us.

In his quest to make sense of it all, he reaches right back to the creation myths by which the tangata, the whenua and our basic human drives came into being: the prime causes of the whole catastrophe that lies between Te Ao and Te Po.

Not that it is deep and earnest. A lot of his story is amusingly prosaic, like the Fair Isle jerseys his mum from Kent used to knit. It was WW2 that brought his Maori Battalion dad and showgirl mother together, in the shadow of the Battle of Monte Cassino. His maternal grandmother’s coming from England is deliciously blended with the Royal Tour. And his anger at the inadequacy of her funeral offers the first glimpse of his pent-up, unresolved anger.

His father’s non-communication and drunken violence is no less impactful for being so common in that generation, and Michael’s final moment of insight and understanding is truly moving. And salutary. But before we get there, there’s the whole issue of what happened to Michael’s brother and best mate Mattie – and who was to blame …

The stories of the coast bros’ rites of passage – losing their virginities, coming to Wellington, getting pissed for the first time, joining up to “Kill! Kill! Kill!” – are classic. And the Infantry training, baiting the corporal, the jungle patrols … The visceral moment when the stark reality hits … Aue.

R&R back in Saigon returns him and us to the juke box songs that vie throughout with traditional waiata: a juxtaposition that speaks volumes to our intuitive understanding of what it is to be culturally colonised, taken out of yourself and brought back to your private core through popular music.  

It is phenomenal what gets covered in the richly textured text as Michael James Manaia makes his journey back to “This way, please!”, the race through the corridors, the baby cry, the reaching hands …  

That my memory of the play is richer in recall of the actual people, places and events than the real-time performance that evokes them, is testament to Te Kohe Tuhaka’s astonishing fitness and skills as an actor, and Nathaniel Lees’ directing.

When the play premiered at Downstage, the first ‘Desert Storm’ war had just begun. That its currency remains over two decades later is tragic. But that’s what helps to make Michael James Manaia a modern classic that everyone should see at least once. And seeing it more than once just enriches the experience, confirming even more so its right to be called a classic. 

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A performance of huge variety, subtlety, inventiveness and energy

Review by John C Ross 16th Mar 2012

High-octane, ferociously complex, ultimately devastating, this new rendition of Broughton’s classic play, with Te Kohe Tukaka as the solo performer, is touring the country after its showing at the International Festival of the Arts inWellington.

Portraying one Maori man’s life, this is also an exposure of the horrific impacts of warfare upon the lives of those involved in the on-the-ground fighting, whereby even the men who come home alive and without visible wound-injuries are all-too-often damaged for the rest of their lives.

For many veterans of the First World War, apart from shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder, there was the lung damage caused by poison gas (which led two decades later to the death of one of my great-uncles). For the Vietnam War, there was Agent Orange, and for the two Iraq Wars, which we largely avoided, it was dirty depleted uranium, both of which did diabolical harm not only to those directly affected but also to their offspring. (The extent of the willed moral stupidity of the senior military mind, in choosing to go on using this shit, beggars belief.)

At any rate, for everyone who has seen the play performed before byJim Moriarty, although it came around long enough ago for one to have only a vague memory of details, we already know the worst issue is the catastrophic genetic consequence, for the still-young man returned after a year’s service in Vietnam of exposure to Agent Orange, so that he is able to beget only a grossly deformed child. As becomes clear at the end (perhaps clearer than in Moriarty’s performance), the man who tells his story has already had in mind, from the start, its ghastly outcome. Hence his wild and violent mood swings, as his mind flips away from the mood of the moment within the story. 

In this production, the unmediated Maori dimension is quite strong, with a korero at the start and at the ending, and finishing with a sprinkling of water, to cleanse one from contact with death. The Maori world that Michael James (Mick) comes out of needs no explication, and the monologue sometimes goes at rap pace. OK so long as you get the gist. 

The whole first half (yes, there’s an interval) deals with the boy growing to young manhood, and the death of his brother, brought about by the unintended consequences of his father’s drunken anger, and domineering. His father, a Two-Eight Battalion veteran, will not talk about his own war experience, yet, and since (as his son later grasps), he remains traumatised by it, and unable even to warn his son against volunteering to join the army. 

The second half begins with basic training, goes on to peacetime soldiering in Singapore, which is enjoyable enough, but then to volunteering again, to join the New Zealand infantry force in Vietnam; and the situation of patrolling is conveyed very convincingly, with the tension, the usual monotony, the occasional disaster, or firefight, the horror of others suffering shocking wounding. Then there’s the return home, the shy courtship, marriage, enjoyable work to make a living. Everything coming right. Except it doesn’t.

Actor and director (Nathaniel Lees) have put together a performance of huge variety, subtlety, inventiveness and energy, well-served by David Williams’ unfussy set with each of its elements, including a small, low-raised platform stage-left and a higher-raised one upstage centre, fulfilling many functions, by Lisa Maule’s lighting, and by Maaka McGregor’s often-ominous, sometimes shocking, sound effects.  

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Gut-wrenching tour of duty

Review by Richard Mays 13th Mar 2012

Twenty years on and this play still packs a mighty wallop. And what a privilege it is to be walloped. Direct from the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012 in Wellington, Michael James Manaia carries the searing clout of a napalm drop.

In 1994,Jim Moriartyturned up at Centrepoint with John Broughton’s 1991 play by way of the Edinburgh Festival. His performance as the traumatised Vietnam War vet staged on a raised square of dirt with a couple of broken tubular chairs as props is still vivid – one of the truly standout shows seen at the theatre in its nearly 40-year history.

The appearance of this 2012 Taki Rua revival performed by Te Kohe Tuhaka, in an army town that provides personnel to serve inAfghanistan, is timely. That it turns up during the fallout over defence force redundancies, ‘civilianisation’, and a subsequent drop in morale is coincidence to be sure, but it’s hard not to watch this startling production without being reminded of current defence force circumstances, and just what it takes to serve in a war zone.

Michael James Manaia is a Kiwi male rite-of-passage story with a tragic outcome. Sons of a Maori Battalion Cassino veteran and an English war bride, Michael and brother Mattie grow up on aHawkesBay marae; attending school inHastings where their father teaches.

It quickly becomes apparent that Michael has real issues with his father, a strict disciplinarian and man silently affected by his World War II experiences. That Michael the narrator is in an unhealthy state of mind is obvious from his sometimes violent Tourette’s-style outbreaks and diversions from a story that contains a wealth of Maori cultural perspective, legends, lively anecdote and humour, but one which grows steadily darker.

The real art of Tuhaka’s striking performance during the demanding two-hour solo show is his ability to make quick physical, emotional and vocal transformations.  From being light-hearted to the near manic confrontations with his character’s demons, the actor also effectively sustains the subtle tensions between these extremes.

Directed by Nathaniel Lees, aided by a sensitive lighting plot (Lisa Maule) and pinpoint sound cues (Maaka McGregor), this is an extremely physical enactment, with Tuhaka perpetually prowling and swinging about on a set that contains higher and lower raised platforms (designed by Dan Williams).

Still seeking approval from his father, young Michael joins the army, and after basic training at Waiouru, volunteers as a member of the 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment inVietnam. His tense tour of duty in the landmine, booby-trap and ambush-riddled jungle is the play’s most effective part, containing pre-echoes of today’s war inAfghanistan.  That the man is suffering a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome is obvious, with his civilian situation compounded by what could be described as family karma.

Culturally revealing, funny as well as gut-wrenching, and ultimately heart-breaking, this dramatic experience is part of our own living-memory social history. Its intense images are bound to haunt. 

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Superb and gutsy

Review by Lynn Freeman 01st Mar 2012

This is the story of a young man damaged emotionally and physically by war – and not only his own experiences in Vietnam. Michael James Manaia is a victim, just as those he killed in the line of duty were victims. He reminds us that wars don’t actually end, their repercussions span generations.

This play is more than 20 years old – John Broughton wrote it before the current near obsession with New Zealand’s military history. Now we hunger to hear war stories. Back then no one wanted to know and soldiers kept their horrors to themselves.

Manaia is half Maori half Pakeha, close to his extended family, inseparable from his younger brother. They’re high spirited, high energy young men who get into trouble. But while his brother dies young, Michael lives on, bitter and resentful towards his father whom he blames for Matty’s death. Michael’s loneliness sees him sign up for the army. An adventure at last.

It’s a brave man who’ll take on this role. It’s not just the words – they’re on stage for more than two hours. It’s not just the physicality – Manaia seldom stands still. It’s the intensity of the emotions and the way they spin from euphoria to anger, love to violence. It’s exhausting to watch, but in a hugely satisfying way.

Te Kohe Tuhaka takes on the mantle of Manaia from Jim Moriarity, the only other actor to play this role professionally. He makes it utterly his own, eyeballing us, daring us, charming and entreating us too sometimes as his story unfolds. Tuhaka is up for every challenge this offers and he offers us a superb, gutsy, unforgettable experience.

Nathaniel Lees has unleashed Manaia on us after all this time, making sure we don’t forget this ‘everyman’ soldier and this period in our recent history. Lees has Tuhaka use every centimetre of the stage, every muscle in his body, and every emotion in his heart – as well as taking him and us into new territory.

I’ve waited 20 years to see this play. It was worth it. My only disappointment was that the theatre wasn’t packed full on Sunday night. It deserves to be every night of its run.

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Not for the faint hearted but deeply affecting

Review by Helen Sims 28th Feb 2012

A strong sense of expectation pervades the audience present to see Taki Rua’s revival of Michael James Manaia.  Solo performer Te Kohe Tuhaka strolls almost casually into the auditorium at Downstage and welcomes us.  He delivers a karakia and then launches into the play.  Aside from a short interval Tuhaka won’t leave the stage until some 2 hours later. 

During those 2 hours he takes us from small townNew Zealandto the jungles ofVietnamand deep into one man’s purgatory.  It’s the story of Michael James Manaia, a distinctly NewZealandstory in which one man’s struggles are reflective of our confused and conflicted cultural environment.

The structure is relatively linear: we start with birth and childhood, which occupies most of the first half of the show.  Of particular significance is Manaia’s close relationship with his brother and antipathy towards his father.  The story is told retrospectively, with ‘present day’ Manaia interpolating commentary. 

The bulk of the first half is light in tone, although we get a strong sense of darkness underlying the story-telling by Manaia’s frequent violent outbursts.  The reason for these outbursts is revealed early in the second half.  Manaia joins the army and is sent toVietnam.  The effect this has on him physically and mentally, and the disjunction it produces between Manaia and the society he returns to after the war, is revealed as the real subject matter of the play.  As Manaia says, no one talks about this, but he’s going to.  

Established early on are intriguing themes of masculinity, father/son relationships, cultural differences and of course the unspoken and unwritten impacts of war.  Mythologies of masculinity tied to warfare or virility are a common thread, including reference to ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Maui’s exploits, Kahungunu’s winning of Rongomaiwahine, Tane and his daughter-wife, and even the story of his parents meeting in wartime Britain.  

The story largely excludes the reported words and deeds of female influences in Manaia’s life, namely his mother and grandmother, and later his wife.  Although women seem to be a source of support and comfort, their role in shaping the man is far less prominent than that of his brother and father, and later his army comrades. 

This is probably largely accounted for by the subject matter and themes chosen by writer John Broughton, but I did feel as though female roles and influences were glossed over.  Maybe this is a further symptom of our cultural environment though.

Broughton does not shy away from taking us to some very dark places with Manaia’s story.  The complex script is complemented by Taki Rua’s simple but careful production.  Beautiful lighting by Lisa Maule evokes changes in mood and setting.  I’m a huge fan of Maule’s distinctive designs, and this is one of the most beautiful and clever I have seen.  

The production is complemented by its sparse set (designed by Daniel Williams), with moving multi-level platforms used to create additional levels.  Tuhaka moves between the platforms with astonishing athleticism.  Music and sound by designer Maaka McGregor is also used effectively to changes mood and setting, and several times to jolt the audience in their seats.

The success of this play ultimately depends on the actor portraying Manaia.  Tuhaka delivers an astonishing performance, managing to convey immense strength as well as fragility – sometimes simultaneously.  He sustains his strong voice and physical agility over the duration of the performance. 

Nathaniel Lees’ direction is unfussy and seems geared to drawing the audience in as witnesses.  We are often eyeballed in a way that makes us complicit in events, although the play stops short of outright confrontation.

This is an important piece of theatre, brilliantly re-staged by Taki Rua for the International Arts Festival. It’s not for the faint hearted, but it is deeply affecting.  There’s a season at Centrepoint in Palmerston North after the Downstage season finishes – do not miss it. 

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Using energy and power to brings a story to life

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 28th Feb 2012

Often a solo piece of theatre following a person’s life story uses different time frames and flash backs as a way of heightening the production theatricality.  

Not so John Broughton’s play Michael James Manaia.  His is a simple yet effective and very powerful piece of storytelling brought to life with energy, power and commitment by Te Kohe Tuhaka in Taki Rua’s production under the direction of Nathaniel Lees.

From the early days of growing up in the country we learn of Michael James life with his European mother and heavy drinking, disciplinarian Maori father who is a also war veteran– described by Michael James as having “blood shot Johnny Walker eyes”. He and his younger brother are inseparable but are always in conflict with their father.  But then tragedy strikes and the younger brother is taken from them.

Once Michael James finishes school the army is his calling and after some rigorous training in the isolation of Waiouru he heads for a 12 month tour of duty inVietnam.

Innocent and naïve and not really understanding the implications of whose war it is, Michael James is soon made to come to terms with reality.  Fighting for his survival in the jungle he faces his own mortality where he is confronted with his ancestral heritage, he also comes to understand something of his father’s behaviour.  Once home after the war he then has his own demons to deal with, both psychologically and physically with tragic consequences.

The demands on an actor to tell this tale, relentlessly going through an emotional rollercoaster are great, yet Te Kohe Tuhaka meets the challenge head on with a confident, dynamic and fully charged performance that is as physical and energetic as you’ll ever see.  So much so in that in the first half the pace and racing of the dialogue is all on the one level with the words often inaudible.

In the second half, however, Te Kohe Tuhaka finds his rhythm, settles into a much more studied performance with wonderful moments of subtly and nuance bringing Broughton’s touching, poignant yet often funny story to a dramatic close.  

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