On The Upside-Down of the World

Concert Chamber - Town Hall, THE EDGE, Auckland

01/07/2011 - 16/07/2011

Assembly, Roxy, Edinburgh, Scotland

12/08/2014 - 25/08/2014

Q Theatre, 305 Queen St, Auckland

25/09/2013 - 28/09/2013

Playhouse, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton

23/06/2012 - 23/06/2012

Baycourt - Addison Theatre, Tauranga

27/10/2011 - 27/10/2011

Theatre Row: 410 West 42nd Street, NYC, USA

10/11/2013 - 10/11/2013

Hamilton Gardens, Lakeside Court, Hamilton

15/02/2014 - 18/02/2014

Theatre Royal, 78 Rutherford Street, Nelson

14/10/2012 - 15/10/2012

Luggate Memorial Hall, Wanaka

16/04/2013 - 19/04/2013

Glen Eden Playhouse, Auckland

29/08/2013 - 31/08/2013

Rudolf Steiner School Theatre, Christchurch

19/09/2013 - 21/09/2013

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

24/08/2011 - 10/09/2011

FUEL Festival 2012

Tauranga Arts Festival 2011

United Solo Festival 2013

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2014

Nelson Arts Festival 2012

Festival of Colour 2013

Going West Festival 2013

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

Production Details

Suppressed for 150 years, the Auckland Theatre Company’s latest work uncovers the words of a woman who dared to challenge colonial injustice.

A crippled English woman arrives from London to a savage land. Charged with civilising the natives, she instead discovers the key to her liberation.

Lady Ann Martin came to New Zealand in 1841, the young wife of New Zealand’s first chief justice. Intrepid, intelligent and possessing a great sense of humour, she disregarded her personal disability, set about learning Te Reo, established a makeshift hospital for Maori on the beach at Judges Bay and dared to dream of all that was possible in this brave new world.

Laurel Devenie stars in ON THE UPSIDE-DOWN OF THE WORLD, Arthur Meek’s new play based on ‘Our Maoris’, the memoirs of Lady Ann Martin, at the Concert Chamber in the Auckland Town Hall from July 1-16 and Wellington’s Downstage Theatre from August 24-September 10.

Inspired to pursue a career in theatre by her father actor Stuart Devenie, Laurel has quickly carved out her own place in New Zealand theatre with a string of lauded performances and directing credits to her name.

Devenie’s debut performance with Auckland Theatre Company in last year’s production of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST was greeted with great enthusiasm by audience and critics alike, and her first directing credit for the company, THINNING, was the runaway smash hit of the 2010 Auckland season of the Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre.

When playwright Arthur Meek stopped at the Matakana Markets last year, he came across a book which he thought might make a good summer read. Hardly a blockbuster, it was called ‘Our Maoris’ – a provocative title in itself – and featured a cover picture of a woman Meek describes as “the most depressed-looking kuia ever”.

But far from depressing, he found the story inspiring and quite unlike anything he had read before.

Published in 1884, ‘Our Maoris’ is the memoir of Lady Ann Martin, who arrived in Auckland, New Zealand in 1842 as the wife of New Zealand’s first chief justice, Sir William Martin. Unhampered by her physical disability, she was determined to bring Christianity to Britain’s most distant colony.

Meek knew immediately the memoir would provide brilliant material for a play but he didn’t want to just to do a history play or a literal reading of the memoir.

“I’m interested in how our history, people and events, impact upon the present day. So it’s not a history play. It’s a play about who we are and how we’ve come to be like we are. ‘Our Maoris’ is an arresting account of colonial New Zealand, from the exact time of the birth of the Pakeha. In ON THE UPSIDE-DOWN OF THE WORLD I’m looking at how our contemporary cultural values and Pakeha identity were born out of the transformative experiences of the English settlers coming to a new country and encountering Maori” says Meek.

“Lady Martin is more than an individual for me; she’s an archetype of a pioneer woman. She was gutsy,” says Meek. “She came to New Zealand where she had nowhere to live and nothing much to eat but she didn’t complain. She just got on with it.”

“She quickly established herself as a teacher and community leader, setting up a hospital and dispensary for Maori patients at Judges Bay (Taurarua) near what later became Parnell. Witnessing events like the Feast of Remuera and the impact of the Waikato land wars – which she opposed – Lady Martin became remarkably progressive in her views.”

“ON THE UPSIDE-DOWN OF THE WORLD is an unashamedly Pakeha view of early colonial history,” says Auckland Theatre Company Artistic Director, Colin McColl, picking up on Meek’s point, “it’s also surprisingly liberal, heart felt and funny.”

The production design by Tony Rabbit, whose recent work with McColl includes THE POHUTUKAWA TREE and WHERE WE ONCE BELONGED, was inspired by a chance viewing of Hakari towers in a New Zealand History book.

“The towers were enormous temporary structures built by Maori for storing and displaying food before a feast,” says Rabbit. “I started with a very refined and polished design but that wasn’t quite right. The Hakari towers were built with whatever Maori had access too, trees and parts of trees, wood in a raw state. I looked at this from a contemporary point of view and I thought about what we have easy access to. I also considered how the building material might reflect England’s industrial might at the time when Ann Martin came to New Zealand and I started playing around with creating a forest and Hakari tower out of aluminium ladders.”

“When Ann Martin came here, she really had no idea what to expect. She had no idea what she was walking into. London and Auckland, at the time, were completely different; the people had different sensibilities and vastly different cultures,” says Rabbit.

“I want the audience to feel something equivalent to that sense of dislocation and confusion when they walk into the Concert Chamber and experience the set for the first time. Here is an enormous structure confronting them and they are forced to think, what is that? How is that an appropriate setting for this play?” he says.

“Lady Martin’s observations of life for Maori and Pakeha settlers alike have uncanny resonances for us today,” says McColl. “We hope this play will invigorate people’s interest in NZ history, early Pakeha settlers and politics.” 


July 1 – 16 2011
Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall, THE EDGE

Aug 24 – Sept 10 2011
Downstage Theatre
04 801 6946

Oct 27 2001
Baycourt Theatre, 38 Durham Street, Tauranga – 7pm
Tauranga Arts Festival 2001

FUEL FESTIVAL 2012, Hamilton
Playhouse Theatre, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts
22 June, 7pm
23 June, 1pm, 7pm

Theatre Royal, Nelson 
Sun 14 October, 7.30pm 

 Festival of Colour 2013
Venue:Luggate Memorial Hall
Admission:  $38
Click on a time to book here:
Tuesday 16th April: 7:00 PM
Wednesday 17th April: 7:00 PM
Thursday 18th April: 7:00 PM
Friday 19th April: 7:00 PM



Glen Eden Playhouse (Going West Festival 2013), Auckland: 29-31 August

Rudolf Steiner School, Christchurch Festival: 19-21 September

Q Theatre, Auckland: 25-28 September

2013 United Solo,
the world’s largest solo theatre festival,
presents 121 productions!
All shows are staged at Theatre Row:
410 West 42nd Street, New York City.

On the Upside Down of the World
Performed by Laurel Devenie, New Zealand
Theatre Row – The Studio Theatre
Sunday 10 November, 7.30pm
drama, 95 min. 

 Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2014

Saturday, 15 February, Monday, 17 February, Tuesday, 18 February 2014 @ 8:30pm
Where:  Lakeside Stage 
Wet Venue:  Pavilion 
Tickets:  $39 Adult | $30 Concession 
Genre:  Theatre 
Duration:  90 
Sponsored by:  Creative New Zealand


WINNER: Metro Best Actress.  Metro Magazine 2011. 
WINNER: Audience Choice.  Wanaka Festival of Colour 2013.  


This the first time Auckland Theatre Company has presented a show at Edinburgh. As playwright Arthur Meek explains, “This is not a history play, it’s a play about who we are and how we’ve come to be like we are,” – and we believe that’s a story worth sharing with the world.

Performances / Bookings
EDINBURGH Fringe Festival 
Assembly Roxy Upstairs
31 July – 25 August
BOOK by visiting

Actor: Laurel Devenie

Designers: Tony Rabbit, John Gibson, Kirsty Cameron 

1hr 35min, no interval

Interrogating multiple selves

Review by Dione Joseph 21st Aug 2014

The New Zealand season at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a showcase of the diversity of voices from Aotearoa and the multiplicity of conversations that occupy our current theatrical landscape. There is no singular homogenous voice that represents New Zealand and it is inspiring to see that poly-vocality represented on the international stage.

On the Upside Down of the World is one such example. It is distinctly, and unapologetically so, a Pakeha story.

It is a conversation between settler New Zealanders of the past to those of the present. It explores the ongoing politics that surround a Pakeha identity as well as the myriad cultural implications it carries within the larger context of New Zealand identity in 2014.  

Arthur Meek’s play based on Our Maoris, The Memoirs of Mary Ann Martin, is an interesting choice to bring to the Fringe for a number of reasons. Its strength lies in that fact that it not only places the memories of Mary Ann Martin, the wife of the first Chief Justice of New Zealand, at the centre but all characters are voiced through her.

It is always her version of history – more appropriately ‘herstory’ – that we are invited to listen to and it is through her lens that we become witnesses to a tale fraught with the challenges of immigration to a new land: two completely different value systems in conflict and a maternal tenderness that locates this story very firmly within the female and feminised world.

Laurel Devenie is a strong actor giving a laudable performance as Mary Ann Martin. A young woman, still in many ways a girl with ‘a gammy leg’, she is desperate for love and a child, and at the earliest convenience is married and shipped off to a land of new beginnings.

Devenie’s excellent change of pace, subtle emotional shifts and ability to weave a balance of humour and empathy keeps the audience engaged with the flaws and foibles of this character, a woman who must experience loss on multiple different levels: home, sense of self and then – when she has verily established a world in her little ‘bay’ and found in a young Maori boy her own surrogate son – she loses everything.

It is a tale of politics and power, land wars and colonialism, motherhood and many of the familiar themes we witness in the unravelling of the psychological umbilical cord in female solo shows. Especially when they revolve around the men in their life.

But pointing out the flaws of the past do not make them disappear and the narrative closes with the predictable ending: a woman, once empowered and active becomes a victim of circumstance and institution, returning back to her native land with no more than a pile of cherished letters and a passive resignation to events beyond her control.

Of course there is much more to the play but its true value returns in interrogating the liminal space in which Pakeha identity is caught, both in the past and in the present. And in that respect it can still push boundaries.  

The production is in itself is simple, with period costuming and quaint affects. Accompanied by live music composed by John Gibson, the sense of nostalgia and ‘other-worldliness’ is reinforced – at times inviting, at others quite alienating and unnecessary for the minor segues.

The set itself compromises a number of ladders at different heights and here perhaps is the most frustrating aspect of the design as they seem to be more of a visual statement than actually having a creative or pragmatic purpose. And although Devenie does use the lower rungs they are often redundant in the actual propulsion of the story forward. 

The show still doesn’t quite gel. It has a sound structure and a very capable performer who is able to cradle the story, for the most part, very effectively, yet it still needs to find its centre. 

On the Upside Down of the World is a quintessentially New Zealand story but while it may be tempting (especially from the poster) to imagine this to be an exploration of Pakeha and Maori relationships, it is a human story of a woman talking back to her multiple selves, past and present, and on this front it certainly does raise some important issues for New Zealand today.



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Sweet, heartfelt and tenderly funny star performance

Review by Brenda Rae Kidd 19th Feb 2014

On the Upside of Down of the World is a play written by Arthur Meek based Our Maoris, the memoirs of Lady Ann Martin, published in 1884. 

The extremely talented Laurel Devenie is Ann, who, uprooted from a life of privilege in England, immigrates to New Zealand with her husband, William Martin, New Zealand’s first Chief Justice. 

It is a harsh unfamiliar land that awaits, “heaving with heathens,” she complains.  No servants, no refinement but plenty of mud and sand.  

Ann is pious, yet stoic.  Due to ill health as a child, she has a pronounced limp and is considered an invalid. Ann’s own father sends her abroad with the assurance that “You can’t come back in worse condition.”

As a matter of survival, Ann sticks to what she knows, maintaining English traditions with the help of treasures brought from the motherland.  A cup of tea in a fine china cup is her antibody against the hostility of the new nation found. 

Poaka, or native pork becomes the everyday meal cooked with lack of care nor skill by the Irish laundry women-come-cook. “The only thing she can boil is a sheet!”  Ann soon tires of it, so searches for ways to bring variety into her diet – if not her life. 

She trades with Māori vendors who arrive on waka from Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. Ann learns Te Reo, gradually earning their trust and respect during the most tumultuous time in New Zealand history.

This is a biography of a remarkable woman who against all odds survives – actually not just survives but thrives to become a staunch supporter of Maori rights.  It’s an old yet enduring story of colonisation, from an unashamedly Pākehā perspective.

On the Upside Down of the World is a modern take on historical events as recorded by Lady Ann Martin, but confronts the assumption that intelligence was a Eurocentric construct; an attitude that still prevails today. 

Laurel delivers a star performance in this one-woman show, embodying not only the character of Ann but of local Māori, servants and others. Her timing is perfection indeed and she shifts between characters seamlessly, admirably holding the audience in this 90-minute play.

Sweet, heartfelt and tenderly funny.


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A compelling character and fascinating and globally significant part of history brought to life in New York

Review by Alison Walls 12th Nov 2013

Taking On the Upside-Down of the World to the New York United Solo Festival, playwright Arthur Meek, director Colin McColl, and performer Laurel Devenie have not only an opportunity to share their work, but to see just how a new audience (albeit one with a strong New Zealand contingent the night I attend) responds to this very New Zealand story. 

Based on the memoirs of Lady Mary-Ann Martin, On the Upside-Down of the World recounts the experiences that shaped a young, restricted English lady into an “unlikely pioneer” with a strong connection to New Zealand and “our Maoris”.

Any solo show naturally rests on its performer, and perhaps even more so with a single central character. Devenie upholds this responsibility beautifully. What initially seems some rather affected acting is ultimately justified by her – Martin’s – development over the course of the show. As she divests herself of the more cumbersome elements of Victorian dress, so does she of the clipped voice and manner. Somewhere in there is the sense that the Maori language has deepened and softened more than her tonality.

Although Devenie is essentially just telling the story, she slips into other characters also as part of the retelling. Devenie’s ability to, for instance, embody a Maori man with a pig is sometimes watered down by the structure of the play that occasionally threads commentary too tightly with reminiscence. That said, Devenie’s committed portrayals of other characters is admirable, and often at its best with characters who would appear her opposite: the “troublesome Maori chief” or her Maori foster child, Sancho, for instance.

Certain nuances of such transformations are perhaps lost to some degree on an American audience and there are a few instances that slip into ‘in-joke’ territory. It is certainly a play in which familiarity, or lack thereof, with the landscape, cultures, and history will have a significant impact on how it is received. This is not a downfall of the production, but something to be considered over this New York run. The narrative and history is indeed conveyed clearly.

The greater danger is not a question of clarity, but of falling into a dramatized history lesson. Undoubtedly, the material Meek is working with is rich and I suspect a desire to honour Martin’s appealing voice and compelling story binds him closely to her memoirs, where greater selectivity and dramatic shaping would have enhanced the play. I want to know what the production is doing as a piece of theatre, beyond allowing the audience to become acquainted with Martin’s story.

Not that this is by any means a cold-blooded piece. The story (aided by Devenie’s excellent performance) of Martin’s relationship with her foster son is especially moving; indeed I think this is where the heart of the play lies, which could be better reflected in its dramaturgy.

Similarly, more definitive production choices could be made. This is a pared-down production for the rather cramped space of the Studio at Theatre Row and so admittedly those choices are limited (no striking abundance of ladders as pictured in the production shots from New Zealand here). Devenie’s costume is the most central design element and it works well to convey Martin’s gradual and growing comfort with her new home, and indeed, with herself. The dress with stiff overskirt and almost grubby underskirts works from the presentational and representational perspective, with the metaphor of dress being subtly underscored by the script itself.

The clever device of a tartan blanket with fringing on the other side that transforms is into something resembling a Maori cloak is also ingenious, if perhaps unappreciated by an American audience. The emphasis on maintaining ‘proper’ dress is strong throughout the play. Along with her clothes, early in the piece, Martin stresses the importance of having “the best things” and her character development is encapsulated by her reference, towards the close of the play, to a certain Maori saying (without giving too much away) familiar to most New Zealanders.

The implicit metaphoric significance here is drawn out by the costumes but a parallel opportunity is lost in the use of props, which are fairly minimal and generally unremarkable. Opportunities are likewise lost with the sound design. In a piece such as this, sound needs either to be fully evocative of the environment, or is best left out together. The odd sections of musical underscoring of emotion and snatches of recorded “bird song” detract rather than add to the already evocative script and performance.

This aside, the production generally reflects careful writing, development, and is performed with both polish and sincerity. The Upside-Down of the World brings a compelling character and, through her voice, a fascinating and globally significant part of history to life. New York audiences will be, as I am, appreciative of the chance to get to know Martin through this engaging production. 


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A rare articulation of early colonial experience

Review by Erin Harrington 20th Sep 2013

Here’s some history that’s not in many accounts of the early years of colonial New Zealand: Lady Ann Martin and her husband William, the first Chief Justice of New Zealand, arrive in New Zealand in 1841, ostensibly on an excursion to bring civilisation to the heathens and uphold the values (both good and rapacious) of the British Empire.

However, New Zealand offers Ann something more: the opportunity to move beyond the restrictions placed on her by virtue of her gender and her crippled leg, and to become her own master.

Ann is clever, intrepid, and clearly in her element, despite the difficulties of colonial life. She discovers first-hand that when you learn the language, you can start to understand the people, and her relationship with those she terms “our Maoris” moves from one of blithe, uncritical maternalism to something more nuanced, affectionate and complicated.

She and her husband are unable to have children, although they inadvertently adopt the young son of a Maori chief (whom they dub ‘Sancho’, after Don Quixote’s squire), and over the course of their 20-something year stay they take it upon themselves to be parents to a new country. The ‘gifts’ of civilisation might be clothing, British manners and Christianity, but they also include liquor, land wars and influenza. 

Laurel Devenie’s performance as Ann is enthusiastic and energetic, especially given the verbosity of the script, and it is clear that Devenie and director Colin McColl have a great affection for her role. At first I found Ann to be a touch one-note and her enthusiasm for bettering the barbarians a bit grating – perhaps this is by design. The longer she stays in New Zealand and the more insight she has into both the native peoples and the fraught nature of colonisation, the more I warm to her.

Some of Ann’s early comments about the ‘barbarians’ brought titters from parts of the audience – laughing at, or laughing with? But later, Devenie’s expression of Ann broadens, especially as she comes to sympathise with the Maori. She begins to see the avarice and arrogance in the eyes of her Whitehall masters, who choose to snatch land as they see fit rather than fulfilling their obligations of care and fairness under the Treaty of Waitangi. Her portrayal of individual Maori is affecting, and the tragic events that occur prior to her departure from New Zealand are genuinely touching. 

Arthur Meek’s eloquent script, which is based on the memoirs of Lady Ann, is well structured and focused. It gently and cleverly signposts some of the issues, both specific and thematic, that rear their ugly heads by the end of the piece. From our perspective in 21st century New Zealand, there is a sense of quiet foreboding; as Ann bathes in the springs at the Pink and White Terraces she comments on the seemingly benign nature of Mount Tarawera, while around her enmity grows between greedy colonists and the Maori who are guardians of the land. 

John Gibson’s sound design gently augments the environment, providing the lapping of water, the buzz of cicadas and the crackle of fire, although in some places something seemed amiss this time, as the buzzing and clicking from the speakers didn’t align with anything on stage. 

The set, designed and lit by Tony Rabbit, is made up of clusters of vertical ladders bolted together, set on a circle of sand. There are many possibilities for visual metaphor: the ladders are a cage, the rigging of a ship, a way of looking out and above, a metal forest, a maze of obstructions, the beginning of an upward (or downward) journey, and an opportunity for Ann to show how dextrous she is despite her withered leg. 

Ann’s frock and costume pieces, designed by Kirsty Cameron, combine the refinement of Ann’s home culture with the coarse practicality of colonial life. The crosshatching on her bustle alludes to the bars of the ladders, and she takes off this restrictive piece of clothing and gains new pieces as she comes to adapt to her new life. 

Some of the frustrations of putting on a festival post-quake are obvious: it is a great shame there wasn’t a more suitable venue on offer, as the school hall at Rudolf Steiner School does the production few favours. Visibility is less than ideal and the acoustics are challenging, and because of this it is very helpful that Devenie spends some time perched up ladders.*

While it takes me a while to wholly engage with (and sympathise with) Devenie’s character, I enjoy the piece. It is an adept expression of the quagmire of colonisation and a rare articulation of early colonial experience that doesn’t pander to the sort of Pakeha myth-making that infused my high school social studies and history classes. That said, I would love to see a companion piece exploring ‘Sancho’s’ experiences of it all.  

As it finishes, On The Upside Down Of The World expresses the complicated and messy situation in colonial New Zealand, without acting as a manifesto for assimilation nor an apologia for the colonial land-grab. It alludes to the continuing struggles for Maori self-determination and the ongoing spectre of Pakeha guilt without offering easy answers – except to finish with the assertion that people are the most important thing of all.

The response from the audience was overwhelmingly positive, and again shows how thirsty audiences are for more of ‘our stories’. 

*(It would also pay to arrive early as the seating is first come, first served, and the parking situation is frustrating. This may account for the slightly late start, although I have only been to one show this festival that didn’t have audience members trickling in 15 or even 20 minutes late – an annoyance for those who have made the effort to turn up on time, and no doubt for the performers as well. Is this just Christchurch’s legendary tardiness, or is this a more widespread issue? Either way, it is embarrassing and annoying.) 


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Moving, thought provoking, still relevant

Review by Candice Lewis 30th Aug 2013

My English friend (how fitting) and I arrive at the charming Glen Eden Playhouse to the most organised parking and greeting of any theatre experience I’ve ever had.  On stage, the set (Tony Rabbit) consists of about 15 steel ladders standing upright and interlocking, forming a structure that serves as the main prop throughout the show.

From the outset the actress Laurel Devenie uses these ladders to great effect; they represent physical structures as well as framing significant moments to good effect. I also like the fact that the ladders might represent the physical challenges she faces as a woman with a ‘gammy leg’ in a new land. 

Devenie has a huge task at hand: this is a one woman show based on the memoirs of Lady Mary Ann Martin and scripted by Arthur Meek, and it’s quite a heavy load. At first I fear I won’t warm to this character; she’s posh and English after all. There is no way to watch this without thinking about my own relationship to these issues, without considering my own unknown Maori ancestors and wondering what it was like when the worlds did first collide. 

Fortunately we see how this young woman with her own dreams and desires eventually sheds many of her preconceptions to embrace what is often a difficult and hostile environment. The shifting of her rigid ideas is represented in her relationship to clothing and the ‘finer things’ of her former English life.

Her costume (designed by Kirsty Cameron) mainly consists of a beautiful and simple dress, the massive crinoline easily evoking the huge cultural differences and attitudes between the Colonists and Maori.

Her struggle to conceive, her great love of her husband William Martin (Chief Justice of NZ at age 26) and her relationship with the son of a ‘troublesome chief’ all serve to soften my heart towards her. Her reference to the little Maori boy she dubs “Sancho” seems patronising and insulting in light of today’s understanding, yet springs from her affectionate association with the character from Don Quixote. 

During a particularly heart breaking moment in the play I cry so hard that I wish I had some tissues with me. Devenie’s performance really shines in the soft and quiet transitional moments; the times when she reflects on how she enjoys the bustling trade in her bay, or when she leans back into a ‘ladder’ to consider the bliss of loving her husband, and of course when she considers “Sancho”.

Afterwards, my English friend immediately starts to talk about how little English people know about what their country “has done” until they travel. She too, couldn’t watch the play without considering her own country and its history. The story itself is incredibly interesting; to think that this young woman was doing her best for Maori, that she learnt Maori fluently and was a successful facilitator for trade in a time when women’s opinions were barely tolerated.  

Moving, thought provoking, and yes, still relevant to the way we perceive each other today.


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Poignant, illuminating, tragic and brilliant

Review by Pip Harker 21st Apr 2013

This wonderful one-woman play follows the adventures of Lady Ann Martin, the young wife of the first chief justice to New Zealand, who arrived here in 1841 and settled in Parnell.

Based on her memoirs we are taken on her journey here to set up house and home, and then as she slowly grows to love the land and its people. She learns Maori from her fostered Maori son and can finally communicate clearly which leads to richer relationships and understanding and some nifty trading.

We are transported to a strange new world to enjoy a new land and the fascinating and rich culture of the “barbarians”. Much comedy is had from the stiff English manner of trying to communicate with the relaxed “rough” Maori.

We feel acutely the pleasure of discovered delights as she becomes settled, the love she has for her husband and foster son, the grief of her miscarriages, her sorrow and outrage at the wars and treatment of Maori land. 

With clever use of a very simple set of free-standing ladder partitions, Devenie creates house, ship, bush, village and bay. The sparse and simple soundtrack and songs sung by the actor add beautifully to the production. 

Thankfully the Luggate Hall is small as this show is intimate and suites the venue. I am stuck at the back where I hate to be. The fidgety teenanger next to me is clearly not finding the play as profound and powerful as I am. When she finally notices the steam coming from my ears she realises it could get very dangerous and stopped moving, fiddling and texting. At 90 minutes long this is a long time to sit still on a hard seat. An easy-chair would be most agreeable.

This play was written with Laurel Devenie in mind and you can see why. She is luminescent and perfect in the role. We fall madly in love with this brave, sensual, gentle, practical and funny woman as she transports us back in time and opens our eyes to her experience.

So good is Devenie that before she has spoken one word we are completely drawn in; intrigued as she limps around the stage with her ‘gammy’ leg. By the end I want to know more about Lady Martin and find myself Googling her that night hoping to discover some happiness later in her life.

As a pakeha woman of English descent I find this play particularly poignant, illuminating and tragic but no-one could fail to find this brilliant show outstanding. See it if it comes your way. Enough said. 


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Poetic descriptions, chilling anguish and joie de vivre

Review by Gail Tresidder 15th Oct 2012

With a stunning tour de force performance in the swiftest moving hour and a half in the theatre I can remember, Laurel Devenie brings Ann Martin to vigorous enchanting life and along the way totally captivates this full house Arts Festival audience.  

At the end, we stand to applaud, to cheer, and then bring her back again to stand again, cheer again.  As people leave the auditorium everyone is smiling and words like fantastic, unbelievable and stupendous are heard. 

After a hesitant start in her new country Ann Martin, or Pansy as she is affectionately called by her husband William, New Zealand’s first Chief Justice, gradually sheds her English sensibilities along with her whalebone corset and grows to be a resourceful, courageous and enlightened pioneer woman.  She learns te reo and comes to appreciate and understand the Maori people – “Our Maoris” as she lovingly, rather than patronisingly, described them in her memoirs.  

From them she discovers the healing powers of indigenous plants and then opens a hospital for her trader friends and their whanau.  She travels about the country, goes to a Government House Ball in a wheelbarrow, learns to enjoy kumara and pumpkin and copes with an Irish woman, hired to help in the kitchen, treating us to a fetching Irish accent as she tells us that her greatest skill was cooking sheets! 

Ann Martin has a ‘gammy leg’ and her share of emotional pain.  She and William long for a child.  It doesn’t happen. Obliged to take on the responsibility of an 8 year old, the son of a chief, she comes to love him, then, after a decade, is forced to return him to his father and his tribe.  Ann’s grief on reading of his death in battle is heart-stopping, echoing the earlier grief of a Maori mother at the loss of her child.  In both scenarios, Devenie’s cries of anguish are chilling in their authenticity. 

There are poetic descriptions of her growing love for her husband and of the new land.  Especially wonderful is her “too beautiful for this world” reaction to the pink and white terraces, sadly destroyed in the 1886 Tarawera eruption.  Devenie’s “trot, trot, trot, leap” imitation of a steamed-up Maori chief is delicious and throughout, Ann Martin’s positive personality and joie de vivre despite all, comes shining through.  As portrayed by Devenie she is a very lovely woman. 

Victorian hymns reflect the times and, especially with “O God Our Help In Ages Past”, the stoicism of the Martins, back in England in their terraced garden, having been banished from New Zealand for not toeing the political party line. 

As for the much-maligned aluminium ladders that dominate the set, I like them.  Depending on her mood, Ann Martin climbs to the top or stays at the bottom; she uses one as a tree or a hill, to look out physically and emotionally on her surroundings.  They are integral, unlike the ladders that for far too many years became an unloved part of every English National Opera production at the Coliseum.

The descriptions of life at Judges Bay and of early Auckland, the disruption of initially good relations between settlers and Maori and the ensuing land wars are real and fresh in this production and their message is still relevant today.     Thank you to Arthur Meek for his excellent play, to Director Colin McColl and most of all to Laurel Devenie for her consummate performance. 


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A splendid evocation

Review by Gail Pittaway 24th Jun 2012

It’s no wonder that the organizers of FUEL theatre festival chose this show to open the season of New Zealand Theatre. It’s an opportunity to see not only a wonderful solo performance but also a piece of our own history told brilliantly.

Arthur Meek wrote the play based on the memoirs of Lady Mary Ann Martin, wife of New Zealand’s first Chief Justice in 1841, published in a rare book entitled Our Maoris and it captivates as an account of a unique time in history told by an extraordinary woman. 

As a young woman with one leg in a permanent brace , “Pansy” as her husband calls her, comes full of hope and anxiety to a bay settlement just out of Auckland city, and is left alone for long periods of time while her husband travels over the colony, presumably administering justice. Gradually her terror of the “savages” she lives near subsides and haltingly she gains confidence in their language, while people from tribes near and far gain confidence in her good will, often preferring to be nursed by her and gradually building up a trading post around her home for many years.

Then war comes – incited she believes, by the Crown betraying its Treaty claims with the Maori – and the time of peace and plenty is destroyed.  Although very strongly critical of Maori lifestyles and customs, she becomes fond of her neighbours and even adopts one young man whom she calls Sancho, to be her assistant in her trading and nursing projects.

Always longing for children to complete their happiness, the Martins cope with childlessness nonetheless and seem to remain close and honest with each other. There are some heartbreaking scenes of confrontation and loss as well as some fine depictions of figures of authority from both cultures.

As the play unfolds, Ann Martin’s clothing alters from formal travel attire, with hat, gloves and jacket, through to domestic dress and apron. A deconstructed hoop skirt hangs on the ladder frame behind her, a symbol of the constraints that this new life has released her from as a young English wife. Finally as she travels with her husband on one last excursion she is clad in a blanket, like a kuia in an old painting.

Laurel Devenie is simply splendid in evoking all the characters in this story while sustaining her own energy and the rapt attention of the audience. She has a natural warmth of manner, gesture and eye contact and huge vocal range to tell the many facets of the piece. The play’s inspiring set of ladder like towers on a soft bed of sand is beautifully employed by Colin McColl’s deft direction, while costume and sound are also muted, based on colours of sand and sounds of bush and water.  


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Life is stranger, more unexpected – and more wonderful – than fiction

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 28th Oct 2011

Laurel Devenie gives a stellar performance as Lady Ann Martin, a thoroughly principled, very modern, post-colonial Colonial, in this moving account of settling in NZ of the 1840s. This is a captivating and evocative theatre work that will travel well throughout NZ and beyond.   

Colin McColl’s strong direction, Devenie’s crisp-as-linen vocals and Arthur Meek’s eloquent, witty script derived from Martin’s memoirs, are the core elements driving this connected piece of work. 

Devenie captivated her highly attentive Baycourt audience at the Tauranga Arts Festival as she brought to life the life and landscape of a settler wife; crippled physically but emotionally free. She brings love, compassion, wit and intestinal fortitude to Lady Ann Martin’s experience of establishing a life in Taurarua (Judges Bay) in Auckland.

Following her father’s advice that “You can’t come back [to England] in worse condition,” Martin throws herself into the colonial life, literally (braced) boots and all. I was intrigued by the combination of empathy and determination that this story demands. Martin has daily challenges to confront, yet she sets about learning Maori, takes into her care a child, and with great joy sets up teaching and missionary work with the local Maori community. This is view of the colonial wife not often depicted.  

Tony Rabbit’s set of a forest made from aluminium ladders on a sand floor ‘box’ is inspired. It’s a fitting metaphor for Martin’s braced entrapment, and with Rabbit’s fantastic lighting design it alternately liberates and threatens to swallow Martin up. “Good Lord, this land will swallow us,” wails our heroine, and it sure looks that way.

The set gives wonderful opportunities for becoming many different settings with both Devenie’s and the audience’s complicit imagination, and McColl’s direction exploits this beautifully. I would like to see more use of the extreme height in the set; perhaps this will develop further.

Selective sound effects invoke a sensual world of a brave new bicultural world involving pleasure and danger. 

Fundamentally this is a tale of the hero embarking on self-discovery. For Martin, NZ is prized for “the ability it affords me to be the master of my own destiny.” This is a great premise for a solo work, and Devenie beautifully explores transformation along the way. 

With clean, tight direction, essential design, selective storytelling, and connected acting dramatising snippets of an unconventional life, I was very moved by this work. Up-side Down proves that life is certainly stranger, more unexpected – and more wonderful – than fiction.

This is one to see. 


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Inspired memoirs

Review by Lynn Freeman 01st Sep 2011

Forget the Rugby World Cup – Wellington’s theatres have presented us with three world class award winning productions all within a few weeks of each other. First was August: Osage: County, then When the Rain Stop Falling, both Circa shows, and now On the Upside-Down if the World at Downstage. The casts of each production have tackled challenging themes and demanding scripts and kicked for touch with each one.

Arthur Meek, of On the Conditions and Possibilities of Helen Clark taking me as her Young Lover fame, reminds us of his versatility with his new play based on the memoirs of one of New Zealand’s most remarkable and eloquent settler wives. How did we not know about Lady Mary Ann Martin, the disabled wife of the young Chief Justice sent out here from England? She went from resenting having to learn the ‘barbarian’ language of the natives to becoming fluent and raising a chief’s son as her own. She showed determination, courage, loyalty and resourcefulness. Later she wrote about her experiences with candidness and wonderful evocative use turn of phrase.

As Lady Mary Ann Martin, Laurel Devenie is nothing short of extraordinary. From the moment she limps on stage, and stares out at the endless ocean she has to cross to join her new husband and start her new life, we are in the palm of her hand. She tells us of her early hazy notions of New Zealand, we get glimpses of her sense of humour, and never for a moment does she show any self pity for her limp or her situation. When she says that unlike many New Zealand birds she will never forget how to fly, we believe her. Devenie makes this role her own. She is enchanting and captivating, her focus for the full 90 minutes never wavers, nor does our delight in her performance.

The production has ultra strong bones – Meek’ script is expertly crafted from the memoirs, Coin McColl’s direction is inspired and he has Devinie weave though, around and up and down the myriad giant steel ladders that Tony Rabbit uses to create the set. They at various times represent ship rigging, forests, a house, a prison, and a journey upwards towards an understanding and appreciation between this Pakeha British woman and the many Maori she befriends. John Gibson’s abstract sound design is striking and Kirsty Cameron’s costume allows Devinie to divest herself of the old world corsetry as she builds a new life for herself on the upside-down of the world.  
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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Provocative at a very personal level

Review by John Smythe 25th Aug 2011

Sustained applause greeted the Wellington premiere of the Auckland Theatre Company production of On The Upside Down of the Word at Downstage last night.

After 95-odd minutes of not quite knowing where to place ourselves in relation to a quaintly Victorian yet deeply committed woman’s observations and actions, we are left stimulated and powerfully engaged with its potently relevant themes.

As with his Collapsing Creation, playwright Arthur Meek has– in collaboration with dramaturg Philippa Campbell, director Colin McColl, designer Tony Rabbit and solo actress Laurel Devenie – a specific and particular human story captures something much bigger. The personal memoirs of Lady Mary Ann Martin (cringe-worthily entitled Our Maoris) have been distilled and enhanced in such a way that the play radiates the story of British colonisation and resonates with contemporary concerns. (Meek’s programme note about the development experience is self-effacingly amusing and salutary.)

Mary Ann’s husband, Judge William Martin, has – at the age of 26 – been appointed New Zealand’s first Chief Justice in 1841 (under Governor Hobson). The judge has gone on ahead and she barely knows him when she is packed off from England to take her place as William’s wife. “New Zealand’s aborigines,” he tells her, “are to be cared for and worked for.” In her ‘make the most of what you’ve got’ way, she sets to work and despite her natural inclination to see her value systems – e.g. about clothing and footwear – as immutable truths of the universe, she ends up learning much more than she teaches.  

Written and perceived from a 21st century perspective, the play packs a political wallop because all the evaluations and judgements concerning Mary Ann’s attitudes and behaviour are left for us to grapple with. Clearly they are presented in such a way as to press our buttons but there is no intermediary to comment on our behalf; to predigest our responses.

Laurel Devenie inhabits the full-frocked, surgical booted and initially crinoline-inhibited role of Mary Ann with a passionately engaging progression from innocent abroad, through learner on a steep curve, to feisty advocate for true justice. That we recognise her situation and empathise with her feelings every step of the way, even when we find them confronting, testifies to a very fine performance indeed. 

Unable to have children herself, Mary Ann is nevertheless dubbed “whaea” (mother) by the local iwi in what we now know as Auckland’s Judges Bay. A “Maori ambush” involving “endless talk” leaves her with the young son of a “troublesome” chief who demands she “teach him your ways.” She dubs the boy ‘Sancho’ (because he reminds her of Sancho Panza and/or because she sees herself as on a Quixotic mission) and a challenging yet symbiotic relationship evolves.

Abetted by her growing fluency in Maori – Devenie brilliantly encapsulates Maori characteristics in snapshot moments – Mary Ann comes to love how the business of trade, between Maori and settlers, makes their bay alive and vibrant as the settlement develops. An outbreak of influenza moves her to set up a hospital and learn the healing properties of local plants and herbs. While her spirited approach to day-to-day challenges assumes she and her kind have a right to be there and live as they see fit, this does not extend to expecting Maori to conform to their ways. In today’s terms her sense of fair play and mutual respect means she believes in integration rather than assimilation.   

But other agendas are afoot. There are wars in the north; “John” Heke is chopping down flag poles; people are burying their valuables … And ‘Sancho’ pulls together a miniature militia to protect his home and whaea. Is this proof that what she and her kind have brought to the bay are valued, or that the boy just a kupapa Maori in the making?

When harmony is restored crops flourish, trading resumes and love blossoms between “Pansy” as her husband calls her, and “Sweet William”, as she calls him. Problems are still encountered and shame is still felt – by a chief at drunkenness in his hapu; by Mary-Anne at her failure to remain hapu – but there are counterpointing joys, like a visit to Mount Tarawera’s Pink and White Terraces. Foreboding just sits there for those in the know to sense.

How different might our subsequent history have become, we are moved to contemplate, if Whitehall had not decreed that “any land not sat upon is waste land” and therefore available for the voracious settlers to take over, overriding the more just mechanism for acquiring land that the Chief Justice had drawn up? Mary Ann’s fury speaks volumes and the “troublesome” chief’s image of a stately Kauri being strangled by a relatively puny parasite Rata is powerful.

The crisis for the country is dramatically encapsulated in the “troublesome” chief’s reclaiming of his son, to “school him in warfare”. Of course Mary Ann feels the boy is hers but does she have the right to claim him? It’s a moral dilemma as strongly focused as the Grusha / Governor’s Wife tussle in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, but there is no Solomon on hand to dispense the required wisdom and the outcome leaves us with plenty to ponder.

Tony Rabbit’s serried ranks of aluminium ladders (I counted 35), variously sloping forward and back, is a shock to behold when preparing to watch a play set 170 years ago. But it bridges the gap between then and now. And the questions of whether they lead upwards or downwards and where the snakes might lie become more and more pertinent at the play progresses. Plus, abetted by Rabbit’s lighting, the way director Colin McColl has Mary Ann using them to navigate her course through the story more than justifies the design choice.

Also eloquent in its elegance is Kirsty Cameron’s cream costume design, which allows for significant divesting en route to Mary Ann’s becoming a ‘naturalised’ New Zealander. But John Gibson’s sound design doesn’t quite do it for me. I thought I was detecting a symbolic progression from birds through rain to tree chopping but in the end the clicking noises felt intrusive – unless the noisy fan on the back of a spotlight a couple of metres from my head was compromising the subtlety of his effects.  

Everything else about this production serves to make On The Upside Down of the Word greater than the sum of its very impressive parts. Whether we are imbued with Pakeha guilt or Maori radical sensibilities, or place ourselves somewhere between – or even outside – those extremes, I doubt any sentient New Zealander or any visitor with any interest in colonial history can watch this production as a passive observer.

For my money, by being provocative at a very personal level, this is the sort of interactivity live theatre does best.  Engaging, moving and thought-provoking, this makes for a very satisfactory night out and deserves full houses throughout its short season. 
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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Riveting story of exploration and discovery

Review by Nik Smythe 02nd Jul 2011

Lady Mary Ann Martin (nee Parker), the wife of the first Chief Justice of New Zealand, upon whose memoirs playwright Arthur Meek based the script for this premiere work, is conspicuously absent on the pages of Wikipedia. Judge Sir William Martin himself has precious few paragraphs considering the groundbreaking historical events he was party to, not least through his good wife and her visionary work in developing race relations at a basic social, human level. 

Solo performer Laurel Devenie works impressively hard to bring Meek/Lady Martin’s verbose text to life on stage, somewhat hampered, as she is, by a large and less than intimate venue, and Tony Rabbit’s distracting set and lighting design which never manages to explain itself to me. The stony-sand floor and the plain wood chest in the centre are easy enough to accept, but the forty-odd tall ladders arranged in a sort of scaffold formation totally dominate the entire stage area and make it difficult to focus on the story. 

The way the light plays over, across and through them offers some artistic curiosity in its own right but, beyond being climbed halfway up a number of times, more because they’re there than for any clear referential purpose I can think of, their presence draws attention from the play’s essence: Mrs Martin herself, and her significant work with the locals of these antipodean lands.

The Martins’ tenure in Auckland spanned most of the 1840s and 50s, a very tempestuous time in which many key battles were fought over land. Among her forward-thinking progressive attitudes, the most ahead-of-her-time sensibility must her abhorrence for the brutal and devastating political ‘tactics’ of military warfare, regardless which peoples are promoting or utilising them.  

At 80-odd minutes, On The Upside Down of the World is an ambitious task for a solo performer and Devenie’s evident skill and professionalism carries her well through a wordy script, a few verbal fumbles the only indication of any opening night nerves. Although – perhaps in part because – her portrayal has all the requisite affectations of a properly raised British lady, I struggled to connect emotionally through much of it. Under the guidance of director Colin McColl the levels of her performance are predominantly as confined as the scope of expression available to a gentle woman in the mid 19th century, and the large proscenium arch of the Concert Chamber diminishes much of the subtlety that a more intimate venue would provide. 

That said, the story itself is riveting. The intrepid exploits of the visionary spouse one of this nation’s founding colonial pioneers tells an amazing story of exploration and discovery. Interfacing with a native people who at first appear ‘barbaric’ to one so refined, as she learns their language and customs in the process of teaching them her own, she inevitably comes to respect them on many levels. 

Devenie’s brief moments of channelling the Maori characters addressing Mrs Martin are among the most interesting and powerful of the overall performance, and the tragedy that befalls her shortly prior to her and the Judge’s return to the motherland drew tears to my eyes, in contrast to the sympathetic difficulties I mentioned earlier. 

The expressionism attempted by the set and lighting is matched by John Gibson’s subtly evocative audio design, an unobtrusive underscoring of the action that suggests rather than recreates the various atmospheric tones of the piece. Costume designer Kirsty Cameron offers a similarly semi-abstract pseudo-sumptuous lightly earth-toned gown which speaks both of the era and into the style of the overall work. 

I feel this sort of play would be better suited in a more intimate venue where the truly fascinating adventures of Lady Martin can be told without being upstaged by the needlessly overbearing scale of production design. What’s more, to lose the ladders would make this piece into a viable and highly worthwhile touring show. 
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.   


Sam Snedden July 4th, 2011

 Ok sweet. 

nik smythe July 3rd, 2011

Indeed, this is not a precedent and if they were not willing to have the preview reviewed I wouldn't have.  It's a valid concern though, so thanks for pointing it out (to be honest I'd forgotten it was a 2nd preview). 

Of course any professional actor will treat any show the same but there are always areas for enhancement that will only become apparent when performing to an audience.  In other countries they have longer rehearsal periods, and at the high end a whole week of previews!

Editor July 3rd, 2011

 This was checked and cleared with the producer (obviously), knowing it was outside the norm. In this case (given the production has been in development for a very long time), no problem was perceived or anticipated. Given the set is what raises the biggest questions, I doubt that changed by opening night. 

Nic Farra July 3rd, 2011

 As an actor we treat previews like shows anyway. My comment Sam, would be 'so what?'

sam snedden July 2nd, 2011


Look I don't know about anyone else but I feel it's a bit inappropriate to review a preview. NZ performers get precious little time in front of an audience as it is before being open to public critiscim. I don't know the curcumstances here, perhaps these were the only tickets that the ATC had available to give out I don't know, but I think it's not a great precedent. 

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