Nga Tangata Toa - the warrior people

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

18/10/2006 - 04/11/2006

Production Details

By Hone Kouka
Directed by James Beaumont


1919 – Taneatua returns from the war a hesitant hero. Te Wai, escorts him to her East Coast marae, surprising him with the news of the arrival of his friend William and her cousin Rongomai. A haunted Taneatua asks for the return of the pounamu he gave her.

Waiting stoically is her father, Paikea. He has given three sons to the war; he clings to his surviving boy, believing he has paid for his sins. But for Rongomai, she comes cradling a legacy of unsettled scores.

Kouka has sculpted a work reaching to the very heart of the obsessive nature of revenge.

Based on The Vikings by Henrik Ibsen.

First produced by Taki Rua in 1994

Calvin Tuteao
Rob Mokaraka
Erina Daniels
Olivia Robinson
Miranda Manasiadis
Matt Saville
and introducing Nepia Takuira-Mita

Set - Tracey Monastra
Lighting - Martyn Roberts
Sound - Stephen Gallagher

Theatre ,

approx 2 hrs 15 mins, incl. interval

Screaming out for atmosphere and menace

Review by Lynn Freeman 04th Nov 2006

How you view this production may well hinge on whether or not you saw the original one, 12 years ago.

Comparisons are odious but natural. I did not see Colin McColl’s version of Hone Kouka’s play – just so you know.

Nga Tangata Toa is ultimately a tale of revenge, utu, taken to the very and bitter extreme – not iwi vs iwi, but family vs family. Two estranged women, one Mâori who married into Pakeha society (Rongomai with her dreams and healing powers), one Pakeha who married into a Mâori family (Rose, who cheats on her soldier husband and is expelled from the Marae), are driven by anger and hurt to harm those they feel betrayed them. This is hatred born of a kind of insanity, with devastating, bloody results.

This is an early Kouka play, written with many an interior dialogue delivered to the audience – a style we really don’t expect to see much these days. In fact it’s all very Shakespearian in scope, style and characterisation, with Rongomai very much a Lady Macbeth and her uncle and sworn enemy, Paikea, a cross between Macbeth and Lear, while Rose is Iago reincarnated.

While the secrets and lies and dark hearts drive the play, there are characters to care for. Taneatua is back from the war a damaged man, resentful at being treated like a hero – "there’s nothing heroic in hiding amongst the dead", he says, and torn between two loves. One of them, his wife Te Wai, is naively loving, even towards her cousin/sister and unknown rival, Rongomai. Paikea’s youngest son and only surviving son, Te Riri, is too young and too ill to follow his brothers into war, to bring honour to the family in that way.

James Beaumont delivers a very stark production – from Tracey Monastra’s (too) austere tilted set to the delivery of the lines. There is no mysticism here, it’s all left to the actors and the script – it’s too much to ask of them. The plot and characters are so extreme and the dialogue so formal, that the play screams out for atmosphere and menace.

This is no reflection at all on the cast. Rob Makaraka is especially moving as the conflicted Taneatua, and Nepia Takuira-Mita makes a memorable acting debut at Te Riri. You’d never know Calvin Tuteao has been nine year’s offstage with his confident performance as the tormented Paikea. Erina Daniels is always a pleasure to watch on stage but her Rongomai isn’t quite there yet, and with the badly underwritten character of Rose, Miranda Manasiadis makes a strong impression. Olivia Violet Robinson and Matt Saville are well cast as the good hearted Te Wai and Wi.


John Smythe November 5th, 2006

Absolutely. Or CapTimes sub-editing? Anyway, fixed it.

Maawhero November 4th, 2006

You'd think a theatre reviewer would know how to spell Macbeth

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Fiery forces

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 21st Oct 2006

There was a time not so long ago when a revival of a New Zealand play was a rarity. But nowadays revivals, if not two a penny, are common which indicates that there is a body of work that can be seen as the firm foundation of a theatrical tradition and that there is a growing appreciation of the importance of that tradition.

Taki Rua has brought back Hone Kouka’s powerful and highly theatrical Nga Tangata Toa, one of the best Māori plays in my opinion because it does not attempt to contain or water down the fiery emotional forces that drive the central characters, and it tells a melodramatic story with a daring flamboyant style that uses both English and Māori to telling effect. The haka performed by the teller of stories, Paikea (Calvin Tuteao), is extraordinary.

Though loosely based on Ibsen’s epic The Vikings at Helgeland, which in turn was based on an Icelandic Saga, there is in Nga Tangata Toa a feeling of ancient Homeric storytelling as the war hero Taneatua (Rob Mokaraka) returns home after fighting in the First World War to be greeted by his wife Te Wai (Olivia Violet Robinson).

He returns to a whanau riven with jealousy, lust, murderous revenge, long suppressed love, and terrible secrets that can no longer be kept. Central to the story is Rongomai (played with a dark passion by Erina Daniels), a character based on Ibsen’s ruthless Hjordis in The Vikings at Helgeland whom he later developed into the equally ruthless Hedda Gabler. Rongomai, like Hedda, despises her gentle and weak husband, the Pakeha Wi (Matt Saville).

James Beaumont’s production has a sort of a Greek classicism to it with a paring down to essentials that is both appropriate to the play’s classic simplicity as well as at times a distraction so that two mimed scenes, one entitled Premonition and the other a race on a beach between that Te Wai and Rongomai that took place five years before are a bit confusing if you don’t know the script.

Tracey Monastra’s sparse sloping stage devoid of any scenery or props has the necessary classic simplicity, which is reinforced by Stephen Gallagher’s loud, highly dramatic sound effects of sea, storm and fire when coupled with Martyn Roberts’s often startling lighting effects. The burning of the marae is presented with the simplest of means but it has a hypnotic effect.

The opening night performance was loudly applauded but I felt that the production and the performances have yet to gel. Some parts of speeches were hard to hear as words were either mumbled or drowned out by sound effects. However, it will, I am sure, find its feet and reveal the full force of Hone Kouka’s fine play.


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When will we ever learn?

Review by John Smythe 20th Oct 2006

At many levels Hone Kouka’s Nga Tangata Toa : the warrior people proves that the more things change the more they stay the same. When warriors return from a war, old injustices surface, revenge takes root and the cycles of violence grind on …

Kouka’s play is inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s 7th play, The Vikings at Helgeland, written in the the mid 1850s. Young, idealistic and relatively radical, Ibsen was artistic director of the Kristiania Norske Theatre at the time but he felt they lacked the resources to do it justice. When he offered it to the better-resourced Christiania Theatre, they accepted it for production. But the board of management vetoed it, claiming they could not afford to pay fees for original work. An outraged Ibsen burst into newsprint, accusing them of failing to promote the interests of Norwegian drama, and a heated public debate ensued.

Some commentators believe it was this that provoked full houses for The Vikings‘ short premiere season at the Kristiania Norske (in November 1858). Others say it was Norway’s growing need for a distinctive national identity, as large scale capitalism threatened to see it subsumed by the likes of Sweden, that attracted audiences. And that’s why Ibsen had turned to Icelandic Viking legend in the first place, to prove Norway already had a cultural heritage and distinctive identity.

When Colin McColl returned to NZ after directing The Vikings at Helgeland for the Norwegian National Theatre (their first production of it in 67 years), and asked Hone Kouka to consider transposing it to a Māori setting, Kouka’s passions as a young playwright were arguably similar to Ibsen’s 140-odd years before. Rather than transpose Ibsen’s play, he wrote a whole new text based on Ibsen’s character relationships, plot and themes, embracing with relish the opportunity to dramatise aspects of Māori culture that he’d never seen on stage before.

The McColl-directed premiere of Kouka’s Nga Tangata Toa opened at the very modestly resourced Taki Rua theatre (in Alpha Street) in 1994, when many New Zealanders were very aware that our country’s identity was in real and present danger of being engulfed by the much vaunted global economy. Thus is was that a mid 19th century Norwegian classic based on old Icelandic legends gave birth to a late 20th century New Zealand classic set in 1919 and rooted in equally timeless principles, if that’s the word …

Now, revived in this new millenium, Nga Tangata Toa‘s exploration of utu, of loyalty-driven revenge, and its no-win outcomes (as old as ancient Greek and Roman theatre, very present in Shakespeare’s tragedies and Jacobean theatre’s most popular genre) has far more relevance and resonance than anyone would wish.

How fitting, too, that Taki Rua (now a production company without its own theatre space) should invite James Beaumont, a key figure in the heyday of The New Depot Theatre: Taki Rua, back to Wellington to direct this revival at Downstage. The original Depot was spawned by Downstage as a way of getting new homegrown work up, at a time when boards and funding bodies often felt unable to sanction such risks on the main stages of the better-resourced professional theatres.  

On Tracey Monastra’s strangely straight-edged set, its alternately sloping lateral surfaces producing visually dynamic arrivals and departures – enhanced by Zoe Fox’s costume designs – the revenge tragedy runs its inexorable course over sixteen scenes that start at Auckland wharf, visit mountain ranges and, via a railway station, reach an East Coast marae and the adjoining beach.

Martyn Roberts and Stephen Gallagher combine once more with lighting and sound designs that transport us far from the theatre, into this other time, place and state of mind, where a dark secret of murder by neglect – by failing to save a brother in distress, in order to gain the status of rangatira – has been revealed by a soldier son, in fear of his own demise in far off trenches.

Rongomai (Erina Daniels), daughter of the dead older brother and high-country farmer wife of Wi (Matt Saville), is viciously antagonistic towards the messenger, Rose (Miranda Manasiadis) – her sister-in-law and wife of the letter-writer – until their growing plan for utu bonds them.

Their other ‘sister’, Te Wai (Olivia Violet Robinson) – the actual daughter of Paikea (Calvin Tuteao), the chief-by-default – is excited to welcome her heroic warrior husband Taneatua (Rob Mokaraka) home from the war. But he is strangely preoccupied with the pounamu patu pendant she has worn in secret around her neck, since he gave it to her the night they first consummated their love.

The twists and turns that weave these threads into a lethal knot are not for me to reveal here. What can be said is that the great strength of this play and production lies in the contrasts between the characters, fully fleshed out by each cast member – including a young Nepia Takurtira-Mita as the would-be-warrior kid brother succumbing to the flu (which the soldiers inadvertently brought back to NZ).

The hate-driven force of Daniels’ passionate Rongomai is beautifully balanced by Robinson’s loving Te Wai, only to be dramatically reversed as revelations take their toll, while Manasiadis brings a dispassionate amusement to Rose’s witnessing of proceedings.

As the mana of Tuteao’s once commanding Paikea fades, Mokaraka’s Taneatua tries to recapture his old light-heartedness and inner peace, and Saville’s Wi espouses Pakeha values of fair play and hard work. And while Takuita-Mita’s boy-man Te Riri provides much needed comic relief, he unnerves us with his desire to follow in the same destructive footsteps as his elders.

To reinforce the next generation’s vulnerability even more, a much younger boy, Houhou (Gabriel Stowers-Shaw) – whose precise parentage becomes a point of contention – observes proceedings with an innocence we know will be all too short-lived.

For all the excellent acting and production values, however, I can’t say I was moved at the final act of wilful slaughter, despite the revelation of a shared secret longing which might have been poignant if I had been able to empathise with – or at least comprehend – the other emotions that got in its way.

The intense emotional realism – including some riveting fight sequences – is effectively counterpointed at times with highly stylised interludes which help to elevate what could have been a sordid tale of dysfunctional family relationships to the level of epic tragedy. Even so, while I realise a moralising epilogue or life-affirming resolution (such as the older classics offer) might not have sat well in this Kiwi context, the bleakness of the outcome takes a bit of working through.

But then so does the daily news, on domestic as well as international fronts. When – as the anti-war protest song puts it – will we ever learn?


Michael Wray October 23rd, 2006

I expected more to come from a collision between Taneatua and Wi over the fallout of that first night with Rongomai. The all-Maori passages, whilst I would have been ignorant of the words, were all placed within emotional scenes in which the meaning of the dialogue was clear. And I say that as an Englishman who had to ask his Kiwi wife and daughter the meaning of odd words, such as utu, that I hadn't previously encountered. One concern though; on the night I went, a Friday evening, attendance was very disappointing. I'd estimate that the theatre was only a quarter full, possibly near to a third. Any comments on why you would think this to be the case so early in its season? [Come on Wellington - a NZ play in one of Wellington's iconic venues.... it should be a full house!]

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