Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Road, New Lynn, Auckland

12/11/2015 - 14/11/2015

Production Details

Niu Sila takes you on journey as two unlikely best friends grow up together. Next-door neighbours, we see the shenanigans of a Palagi boy and a “fresh off the boat” Islander boy from the age of 5 all the way to adulthood. A truly organic Kiwi story of the multicultural nation that we live in, we see how their cultures can be so different, but share so many similarities.

Two actors will create the world by playing brothers, sisters, parents, policemen, the minister, and the local Indian sports team.

Produced by first time producer Richie Grzyb, with b.TERONGOPAI. This is a chance for two recent acting grads – Richie Grzyb and Marwin Silerio – to cut their teeth on a good script with a range of characters, in a professional setting straight out of Uni.

Te Pou Theatre; 44a Portage Road, New Lynn
12-14th November @ 7.30pm
Book tickets @:  

Actors: Richie Grzyb, Marwin Silerio.

Production Designer: Jay Saussey
Producer: Richie Grzyb

Theatre ,

Speaks for its own time and for today

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 14th Nov 2015

When is it too soon to label a play a New Zealand classic? I’d say never because, despite its relative youth in the grand scheme of things, Niu Sila has, in my opinion, already achieved that status.

Based on Dave Armstrong’s ideas written in novel form that record his growing up living next to a Pacific Island family in his hometown, a visit to Wellington to meet with Oscar Kightley saw scenes dramatised and the play take shape. It was first workshopped in June, 2003 and saw its premiere performance at Downstage later that year, directed by Conrad Newport and starring David Fane as Ioane Tafioka and Damon Andrews as Peter Burton. 

Twelve years and many productions later, b.TERONGOPAI.t has taken up the challenge and shown us just what a fantastic and timeless play Niu Sila really is. It requires performances of the highest order and some pretty sassy direction to make the whole thing hum and b.TERONGOPAI.t has brought just such a team together to share this extraordinary, yet also utterly ordinary, narrative to an opening night full house at Te Pou.

It’s the story of two boys growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand in houses almost next to one another. One family, the Burtons, find new neighbours, the Tafiokas, more than open to welcoming the growing friendship between their young sons Peter (Richie Grzyb) and Ioane (Marwin Silerio). Through the voice of Peter we are handed a story of growing up, rites of passage and the eventual parting of ways.

We’re presented, in fact, with a painfully real picture of a New Zealand that still exists today but today, sadly, we live without any sense of the idyll that was the pathway of these young friends. Today, if anything, we have a greater sense of privilege and entitlement among European communities and a far more significant ghettoization of our migrant island communities, all fully supported by government and government agencies as they try to square the circles of ideology, poverty, lack of educational opportunity, and crime and punishment. Maybe I’m getting old but today seems a far worse time to be growing up Polynesian or Māori in this, the country called Godzone.

The marketing for the production tells us that this is “the hilarious and moving journey of an unlikely friendship spanning three decades.” It does indeed, and as Armstrong is quoted as saying, if he hadn’t been in his early thirties and Kightley in his late 20s when the play was conceived and written, if they had been in their 70s instead, then the play might have spanned seven decades rather than three. You see, it’s just that sort of play. It’s just that real.

Niu Sila, we are also told, “is the side-splitting story of a Palagi lad and a ‘fresh off the boat’ Polynesian boy from the age of five through to adulthood.” We’re told that it’s “a truly organic Kiwi story of the multicultural nation that we live in, we see how their different cultures can share so many similarities.” We’re invited to join Grzyb and Silenio as they “take on the challenge to create the world of Peter and Ioane by playing over 30 characters: brothers, sisters, parents, policemen, the minister, and the local Indian sports team.” 

All that is true, and they do so in a manner that exceeds any expectation I had as an audience member, and when I go to Te Pou I have learned to expect an awful lot!

The set is simple – a few scattered black boxes, a long white trellis fence, a couple of astutely placed trees and, at the back, buried at the rear of the one entrance, a large and impressive piece of tapa cloth. The costumes are simple too – grey school uniforms with the only difference being that Peter wears socks and shoes while Ioane wears sandals. The lighting is incredibly subtle and most effective throughout. Big ups to both Production Designer (Jay Saussey) and the operator.

The play beings in a TAB with both boys grown up. Peter has tracked Ioane down and tries to reconnect but his friend is having none of it. Grzyb is as giving as any actor could possibly be and Silenio as obstructive, sullen and evasive as is necessary to make this complex scene work. We know nothing yet, but by the end of this masterclass in non-communication we are ready for anything.

What follows is 80 minutes of pure joy: acting as raw as it should be, audience, at once in stitches and, immediately after, silent with shock and disbelief. I am regularly dragged back to the immediacy and relevance of this tale; to the shameful occurrences in our parliament this last week: behaviours that highlight our government’s attitudes to women and to sexual and whanau violence alongside the horror of what is happening to New Zealand citizens in the detention centres on Christmas Island. It was as though the content of the work had been played out over the past seven days on my Facebook page as apologists for the Prime Minister attempt to make light of his behaviour and to justify the stance of the Australian government towards the incarceration in concentration camps of our own New Zealand citizens. Relevance? Bloody oath, mate. Lashings of it.

We learn that “the gutter is the best education a kid can have” from Peter’s liberal Dad. He’s an awesome sub-character, a man who drives the play into deep and unfathomable waters and make us think about our own childhood and to what’s happening to education today. 

We learn about the significance of Ioane’s pony tail and our very alert audience isn’t blind to the irony. Peter is taken to church, Samoan style, and Silerio’s minister brings the house down. Even the large smattering of palagi in the audience get the joke. I

n fact, it’s fair to say that all of Silerio’s characterisations are bang on. His Mrs Tafioka is sublime, his Indian cricket team captain – a Mr Patel who, of course, owns a dairy – and Ioane’s younger sister are supreme examples of an actor absolutely at the top of his game. Silerio also has the power to change an emotional mood at the drop of a hat and does so with power and venomous accuracy.

He’s not alone either. Grzyb is his equal even though his characters are more anchored in a conventional palangi base; less exotic, perhaps, than Silerio’s. His Mrs Burton is a lovely mother who accepts Ioane and his family into her home even when Mrs Busybody-over-the-road doesn’t want a bar of ‘these Islanders’. His Mr Burton is as passionate about education as it’s possible to be and he exposes the innate racism that permeates the entire piece.

Again, it’s as though the play is suddenly peopled by bods from my Facebook page who bleat on about the importance of Charter Schools and the inadequacies of brown parents who drink and smoke away their benefit money rather than caring for their kids. Yes, folks, there are still people who believe, and promulgate, that crap and, yes, they do it on my Facebook page! 

There’s a virility in both Grzyb and Silerio’s performances and each is clearly an immensely capable actor loving working with the other and in the hands of a wonderfully capable, and empathic director in Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho. 

Not enough can be said about this wonderful script and its capacity to speak for its own time and for today. Armstrong and Kightley, stars in their own right, have created a chamber masterpiece that characterises the country we all live in and celebrates us in our tuxedoes, our lava lavas, our togs and our undies. It’s a warts-and-all portrayal and it is sublimely, knicker-wettingly funny. Even the ending, which could have been a real wet blanket, isn’t. It’s rescued by its humanity and its guts and has light shone on it by two superb performers and one crackerjack director. 

My family leaves the theatre in far better spirits than we were in on arrival. It’s pushing towards Christmas, exhaustion is never far from the surface and a night at the theatre such as the one we experience is an excellent balm indeed.

It’s simple stuff, Niu Sila, as all the best things are, but it’s deceptively so. The pitfalls are deep if you don’t get it right. This team got everything right and I take considerable delight in saying so. It’s a short season so plead with the company to bring it back. It’s so very worth a reprise season.


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