Te Papa: Soundings, Wellington

18/01/2017 - 29/01/2017

Production Details

Two stunning new plays,set in World War and modern-day  Wellington,  explore memory, healing, and the idea of home. Parts and of ‘The Undertow’ series.



1917 and home calls to our boys in No Man’s Land – the space in between where anything is possible.  … In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.  Dumb, black bastards stuck in the mud either way.

Passchendaele, Belgium. The Allied troops have abandoned her front line soldiers, leaving them to rot in the mud with just their memories to keep them company.  Cousins Hamuera Kenning and Will Meier must help each other escape, heal and find a way home before all is lost. 


In the bowels of an ancient willow tree somewhere just between today and tomorrow an old man and his roots are digging in against the Landeaters

Set in the bowels of a willow tree where the ancient spirits reside, Vietnam War veteran Harry Kenning fights to save his land, his home, his ancestors and his memories from urban development.

“To have read or heard about our local history is one thing, but to see it portrayed in the way Te Rākau Theatre does is special and unique and not to be missed.” TheDominionPost

The Undertow

‘The Undertow’ is a quartet of bold, ambitious plays from Te Rākau Theatre, performed together for the first time. Immerse yourself in stories with a kaupapa Māori perspective that span the first settler ships and modern urban life.

Creative team

Director Jim Moriarty (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Kōata, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Scots, Norwegian) is co-founder of Wellington-based Te Rākau Theatre, which has worked with schools, prisons, marae, rural communities, and youth justice residencies since 1989.

Te Rākau Theatre playwright Helen Pearse-Otene (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Kahungunu-Rongomaiwahine) is author of all four ‘The Undertow’ plays.

Soundings Theatre,Te Papa, Level 2
Wed 18 Jan | Fri 20 Jan | Thu 26 Jan | Sat 28 Jan 2017
6.30pm–10.30pm (includes 45-minute intermission)
Cost for both plays: adult $50, concession $35, student $30, child iwi $25

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Will Meier: Reuben Butler
Hamuera Kenning: Manuel Solomon
Fleur: Greer Phillips
Bea: Isobel Mebus
Harry Kenning: Ralph Johnson

Soldiers: Jeremy Davis, Zechariah Julius-Donnelly , Dylan Fa’atui, Noel Hayvice, Tamati Moriarty, Daniel Nodder, Conor Peoples, Joshua Tait, Louis Tait, John Ulu

Nurses: Annie Ashton, Nicole Ashton, Unity Brown, Mearn Houston, Charlotte Lennon, Rebecca Moriarty, Sophie Pascoe, Kimberley Skipper

Nga Manu: Arihia Hayvice, Nova Waretini-Hewison, Cayden Howes, Beth Jones, Cameron Ruka-Karauti, Vita Mebus, Hariata Moriarty, Mila Moriarty, Emily Salisbury

Harry Kenning: Ralph Johnson
Wayne Tinkerman: Matthew Dussler
Sam: Nicole Ashton
Lou: Mearn Houston
Piri: Kimberley Skipper
Foreman: John Ulu

Annie Ashton, Nicole Ashton, Unity Brown, Reuben Butler, Jeremy Davis, Zechariah Julius-Donnelly, Dylan Fa’atui, Arihia Hayvice, Noel Hayvice, Nova WaretiniHewison, Cayden Howes, Mearn Houston, Beth Jones, Cameron Ruka-Karauti, Charlotte Lennon, Isobel Mebus, Vita Mebus, Hariata Moriarty, Mila Moriarty, Rebecca Moriarty, Tamati Moriarty, Daniel Nodder, Sophie Pascoe, Conor Peoples, Greer Phillips, Emily Salisbury, Kimberley Skipper, Manuel Solomon, Joshua Tait, Louis Tait, John Ulu 

Theatre ,

The epitome of performance art

Review by Ewen Coleman 24th Jan 2017

A theatrical event like no other is currently taking place in Wellington and is not only unique in its structure – four plays under the one title – but with its content as well.

Developed over several years prior to this current showing, the first of the two plays Part One: The Ragged, set in 1840 Wellington and the second, Part Two: Dog & Bone, set in 1869 Wellington, have been seen and reviewed previously.

These are now playing on alternate nights with the two new plays – Part Three: Public Works, set in 1917 on the Western Front and Part Four: The Landeaters, set somewhere in the here and now. [More


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Inspired works tug at our collective conscience

Review by John Smythe 19th Jan 2017

When I reviewed the development season of The Ragged – the first play in what has evolved into THE UNDERTOW quartet – back in 2010, I tagged it “true community theatre”. And it is: of the people, for the people, by the people of Wellington’s south coast, in that its progenitors and leading lights are playwright Helen Pearse-Otene and Te Rākau Theatre director Jim Moriarty, who live in Ōwhīro Bay.

By distilling nearly two centuries of Māori-Pākehā relationship into the story of the tangata whenua of Ōwhīro’s fictitious kāinga Te Miti and the visitation upon them of the enterprising settler Samuel Kenning, then following their respective progeny from 1840 (The Ragged), through 1869 (Dog & Bone) and 1917 (Public Works) to ‘the day after tomorrow’ (The Landeaters), Pearse-Otene deftly articulates universal and timeless truths of cultural appropriation and cohabitation.  

Book now and then read on, that’s my recommendation. And here is the link to the review of the first pairing in the quartet: The Ragged and Dog & Bone.

Anguished military Patients tell us “I want to go home” and their Nurses call for “healing for all” as we make our ways into Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre. The wooden rowboat that has appeared in both the previous plays is upended upstage to suggest a gothic arch. A soldier lies downstage centre, at attention, blindfolded and dead.

A phalanx of Sparrows – the younger members of the 35-strong cast; a superbly focused and co-ordinated ensemble – whakaeke (enter as warriors in stamping, posture-dancing formation) and surround the body as the Patients and Nurses construct a cruciform tombstone with large grey boxes. The hymn ‘Abide with Me’ is beautifully rendered by the whole cast as the body is elevated: crucified on the memorial.

Thus we are introduced to Will (Wiremu) Meier (Reuben Butler), mentally trapped in the trenches as his Belgian nurse, Fleur (Greer Phillips), tries to orientate him to a more objective reality. His soldier cousin Hamuera Kenning (Manuel Solomon) mentions brothers lost in the mud. Are they still in Passchendaele?

The non-naturalism of the actions and interactions intrigues: there is a mystery here to solve as the subjective realities of this shockingly wasteful world war emerge from Pearse-Otene’s engagingly wrought allusive and elusive script.

The boat brings Will’s mother Bea (Isobel Mebus) into the action and their lively and relatively innocent childhoods are recalled – touching, among other things, on the edict that Māori must not be spoken in public. The irony of Will’s apparent German heritage has only been mentioned briefly and I’d like to know more about how the Meiers fit in with the Kennings and Te Miti (perhaps a family tree programme insert?).

The unexpected intrusion of an ebullient a Kiwi hiker, Harry Kenning (Ralph Johnson), out to “hide a few things before I take off”, compounds the intrigue, especially when he takes Hamuera to be “one of those war enthusiast, re-enactment types”. 

The five named characters give strong, committed and very fluent performances. Amid the heartfelt accolades for all involved at every level, special praise is due to Busby Pearse-Otene’s sound design and Lisa Maule’s lighting design, and the way they integrate with the extraordinarily disciplined physicality of the ensemble.

To reveal the crucial truths – about whose imaginings we are privy to, and what exactly has befallen Will – would be a spoiler. But I will go so far as to say Hamuera and Fleur marry and return to New Zealand; to Te Miti and Will’s mother, Bea. And even at this distance from the ‘theatre of war’, she too proves to be a mental health casualty. Or is she?

The appalling inequity of Pākehā returned servicemen getting resettlement privileges that their Māori ‘brothers in arms’ are denied is dropped in without fanfare, as a simple matter of fact. Binyon’s iconic words from ‘For the Fallen’, intoned by Harry, leave us to ponder what exactly has been remembered and what has been forgotten.

This story could have been told in a very prosaic, documentary fashion, but Pearse-Otene, Moriarty and the whole Te Rākau company go about it in a far more interesting way, whetting our appetite for the truths and allowing us to discover them; slipping in the political points in ways that will trigger our consciousness and consciences when we are ready to hear them.

Similarly The Landeaters traverses well-trod territory story-wise but does so in a unique way – and this time the political polarities are strongly expressed by the holding-his-ground protagonist Harry Kenning (Ralph Johnson) and property-developer antagonist Wayne Tinkerman (Matthew Dussler), requiring us to evaluate the situation according to our own principles.

Harry is a Vietnam vet, and served in Borneo before that … And here I pause to do the maths, wondering how this could be the same Harry Kenning who popped up in Public Works, set a century ago. Perhaps he’s Harry, grandson son of Harry. Except the Harry who buried stuff in the earlier plays (back in Te Miti, sometime after WWI) does seem to be the same one who is looking for them now, or rather ‘the day after tomorrow’. Maybe, since dream-worlds are involved, prescience is permitted. Anyway …

In his own mind, at least, Harry remains fighting fit and has no intention of giving his ancestral home at Te Miti over to Wayne Tinkerman’s bulldozers – or rather the somewhat disaffected subcontractors – to make way for a retirement village. He has ‘gone to ground’, dramatised as hiding out beneath the 200 year-old willow tree, under which his whenua is buried (presumably planted by the first English arrivals: Samuel Kenning or Borrigan, perhaps). Metaphorically, Harry has gone back to his roots.

In the earlier plays the convention of playing most of the dialogue straight out front, instead of to each other, takes a bit of getting used to, being more redolent of vaudeville than the ‘direct address’ conventions of Elizabethan and Jacobean soliloquies or Restoration asides. But here it works well because most of the conversations are on the phone, so eye-contact is irrelevant.

While the ‘present time’ ‘siege’ scenario sees an angry Wayne fall down a hole to join Harry while Harry’s niece Piri (Kimberley Skipper) observes what’s happening above from her car and updates her uncle by cellphone, other dimensions of Harry’s life are ingeniously integrated into the action.

Talkback radio and remembered sorties into the jungle – including an especially impressive ensemble-created helicopter – evoke the Vietnam War and its toxic aftermath, and inform our understanding of Harry’s current behaviour and state-of mind. Phone calls from Sam (Nicole Ashton) concerning his application for a Veteran’s Benefit, and from his psychotherapist Lou (Mearn Houston) offer further insights to Harry’s circumstances.

But it’s the interactions between Harry and Wayne, powerfully rendered by Johnson and Dussler, that bring the central linking theme of ‘landeaters’ home because, as mentioned above, both are fully committed to their point of view, thus demanding we interrogate our own positions.

Not that Pearse-Otene keeps them in simplistic opposition; she’s too good a playwright for that. Suddenly Wayne is battling bureaucracy, albeit by phone, on Harry’s behalf. Also he’s shocked at Harry’s joy in playing video war games, and perturbed at their potential social damage. Then there is Harry’s racial intolerance of other cultures migrating to New Zealand and settling here …

The way the complexities of humanity are embraced enriches our experience of the play, as does the way these actors embrace the challenges it presents. And because it pinpoints the human condition so well, there is plenty of humour within the drama.

Those who have seen the previous three plays will be looking for the appearance of the butterfly (that’s all I’m saying) and will be intrigued as to what exactly Harry is so intent on finding, that he buried so long ago. The narrative, thematic, visual and action-based threads that recur throughout the quartet enhance the total experience of THE UNDERTOW even more.

Harry’s final statement on what it is “that kills you” offers a profound insight that leaves us contemplating our own futures and our responsibilities to those around us.

So why is it called THE UNDERTOW? Because even as we strive toward a safe shore, the past pulls us back, tugging at our collective conscience? Because our health, safety and longevity depend on our recognising the hard-to-face truths that surge beneath the surface? Any other thoughts are welcome in Comments below.

And here’s more food for thought concerning the name Te Miti: the verb ‘miti’ means to lick up, swallow up, destroy.

Billed as “177 years of history, 28 performances, 35 performers, 100% the Treaty in action”, Te Rākau’s UNDERTOW deserves even more the accolade I gave The Ragged last year: “…a richly textured, insightful, humorous, sobering and energising gift to Wellington and Aotearoa.”
 – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The four plays are staged in pairs on successive nights and the marathon can be experienced, from 1pm, on Saturday 21st, Monday 23rd (Anniversary Day) and Sunday 29thall details here. For those used to binge-watching whole drama series from box-sets or on Netflix, this should be a breeze.

Note: I’m told sustenance will be available on site for the marathons but that is not so for the evening sessions, when Te Papa forbids eating in the Soundings foyer (a poor service policy they should rethink). So eat well beforehand or avail yourselves of the Circa Theatre bar and counter food, or the Wild Bean Café at the nearby BP service station (avoid the coffee; hot chocolate’s OK). 


John Smythe January 26th, 2017

Here is the link to my review of THE UNDERTOW on RNZ National this afternoon.

John Smythe January 20th, 2017

Thank you 'melvic' - corrected now. 

melvic January 20th, 2017

Fabulous theatre. Tears.

The final marathon viewing of all four plays is on Sunday 29 January. Not Saturday 28th as stated in review.


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