Te Karakia

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, The Edge, Auckland

05/03/2009 - 08/03/2009

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

27/02/2008 - 29/02/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details


Te Karakia is a love story of hope and forgiveness set amidst the backdrop of the 1981 Springbok Tour. It is written by Albert Belz, winner of New Zealand’s most significant national theatre award, the Bruce Mason Award for Playwrighting.  

Commissioned by Taki Rua Productions, to celebrate 25 years of professional Māori theatre, Te Karakia tells the story of a young man’s struggle with the revolutionary zeal of 1980’s New Zealand society versus his strict religious upbringing.

Excommunicated during his childhood from his family and faith, Matthew Connell has found a home within the New Zealand police force rising to the elite ranks of the Red Squad.

However, Matthew’s regimented existence is threatened when Ranea, a young Māori woman from his past, re-emerges to challenge his future. With precipitating civil unrest spreading across the country, Matthew is forced to confront reconciliation with his long-absent father, his childhood past and defend his own inter-racial experiences.

The 1981 Springbok tour became one of the most divisive events in New Zealand’s history. South Africa was considered to be New Zealand’s most formidable rugby opponents. The Tour’s impact went way beyond the rugby ground as communities and families divided over South Africa’s policy of racial apartheid.  The tension spilled out onto the streets and into the living rooms of the nation.

Te Karakia will be directed by David O’Donnell who has a particular interest in new New Zealand work, and previously directed Belz’s award-winning production Yours Truly.  The stellar cast will include Tim Foley (Shortland Street), Donogh Rees (Crush, Marlin Bay, Xena, Shortland Street) and is designed by Tony De Goldi, Jennifer Lal and Stephen Gallagher.

A multi-award-winning company, Taki Rua Productions’ previous Festival works include Purapurawhetu, Woman Far Walking and The Prophet. 

Since Belz’s debut in 2001, this outstanding young playwright has wowed NZ audiences with his ‘new wave’ of writing around New Zealand issues and characters.  Both direct and unsentimental in his prose, Belz’s last tour with Taki Rua Productions, Awhi Tapu sold out around the North Island and received an award from The Human Rights Commission for its "positive contribution towards harmonious race relations – a marvellous story, presented with humour, passion, pathos and hope." 

In 2006 Albert won the Bruce Mason Award for outstanding emerging playwright, and his third play Yours Truly, directed by David O’Donnell for BATS Theatre, won Best Play at the Chapman Tripp theatre awards.

Supported by The Lion Foundation and Creative NZ

Co-produced by the New Zealand International Arts Festival
and Taki Rua Productions

At Downstage Theatre for seven performances
27 February until 2 March 2008.
27-29 February, 1, 3, 4 March at 7.30pm,
2 March at 4pm

CAST (Wellington)
Matthew Tim Foley 
Ranea Miriama McDowell 
Elsbeth Donogh Rees 
Phillip / Uru Mark Ruka 
Tohu Calvin Tuteao 
Gareth Paul McLaughlin 

Donogh Rees, Rangimoana Taylor, Ngapaki Emery, Michael Whalley, Tainui Tukiwaho and Karl Drinkwater

Set designer Tony De Goldi
Sound designer Stephen Gallagher
Lighting designer Jennifer Lal 

Dramaturg  Hone Kouka  

2 hrs, incl. interval

Deep, strong and moving

Review by Lynn Freeman 06th Mar 2008

So where did you stand on the Springbok Tour?  It was a quarter century ago but it feels like a lifetime. 

The Tour is the backdrop to Belz’s work but it goes far beyond that historic event – he touches on pakeha and Māori attitudes to the land and each other, urbanization, alienation, self-determination, religion and love.  All in two hours. 

Probably a bit too ambitious and there are some gaping holes in the plot, but suspend your disbelief and you will be rewarded.  In summary, Matthew (Tim Foley) makes it onto the highly desired Red Squad, but this tightly controlled young man is a powder keg, thanks to the fanatically religious upbringing on a farm out of Hamilton. 

After seven years he meets up with Ranea (Miriama McDowell), his childhood friend then sweetheart.  They find themselves on opposite sides of the Springbok fence, but Tim has bigger personal issues he can’t baton his way out of.  

Albert Belz’s work just keeps getting better, deeper and stronger and director David O’Donnell is the perfect match.  The casting is superb, with Calvin Tuteao’s scenes with the radiant McDowell, as father and daughter, among the most moving. 

Tony De Goldi’s set, while ingenious in using the available space, includes large crosses which, while symbolic, wobble irritatingly and for those on the south bank seating block, keep obscuring the view.


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Moral dilemmas dramatised through love story

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 04th Mar 2008

Te Karakia is another exciting play from the pen of Albert Belz which has been given yet another splendid production by David O’Donnell, who directed Belz’s Yours Truly two years ago. It is a love story set against the Springbok tour of 1981 and is at the same time a state of the nation play about Māori/ Pakeha relations then and, by implication, now. Events at Urewera come to mind.

Gareth Connell, a widower, is a Waikato farmer who lives on a farm with his fiercely religious mother and his son Matthew. Their farm is managed by Tohu, also a widower, and father of the spirited Ranea, who plays religious games with Matthew and teaches him te reo when they are waiting for the school bus.

Tohu has dreamed for 15 years of buying part of the Connell farm but as both children grow up, relationships between the families make this impossible.

Matthew is forced to leave home and he eventually joins the police and the Red Squad as the Springbok tour is about to tear the country apart.

Then Ranea and Matthew meet again as adults when he secretly returns home to visit his grandmother’s grave.

Told in flashbacks with a pleasing economy of style on a sparse but effective setting by Tony De Goldi of crosses, telegraph poles, fences and a puritanical plainness of furniture that evokes the severity of the religious beliefs of the Connell family, the play moves with measured pace to the climax when Matthew has to confront not only his estranged father but also Ranea, who has been involved with her cousin Uru in the protests at Gisborne and Hamilton.

The acting is first rate, with Miriama McDowell as Tanea and Tim Foley as Matthew giving outstanding performances.

Donagh Rees somehow manages to be both cold as steel and a loving grandmother, while Paul McLaughlin as her son reveals the long-suppressed feelings of a lonely man without resorting to false dramatics.

Calvin Tuteao, as Tanea’s father, and Mark Ruka, as Uru, and a redneck policeman give excellent support.

Taki Rua is back all guns blazing with a play that dramatises the moral dilemmas that Māori and Pakeha have faced and will face in a different manner in the future. Belz does this without moralising, preaching or sentimentality but through a love story.


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A must-see play for all generations

Review by John Smythe 28th Feb 2008

Best of the Fest so far for me is Te Karakia, restricted to seven performances only, ending on 4 March. Book now if you haven’t already.

It is a wonderfully crafted evocation of 1981, when the infamous Springbok Rugby tour divided Aotearoa New Zealand like no other issue; when protest about South African apartheid tore the scab off our own race relations.

Not that playwright Albert Belz has penned a polemical historical documentary, or even just an ‘issue’ play. Master craftsman that he is, he distils the whole sorry mess into an initially innocent then ‘mature’ and problematical love story that has yet to achieve the true resolution most of us would like to see.

He wrote it in the wake of the seething unrest over the seabed and foreshore legislation. The more recent Ruatoki raids and random roadblocks, that invoked an anti-terrorism act and saw actions taken that have yet to be tested at law, happened when Te Karakia was in its final stages of development. And ironically, as director David O’Donnell reminds us in his programme note, the ex-police officer who was leader of the Red Squad in 1981 (Ross Meurant) has been very critical of that police action at Ruatoki.

Given the title, I’m tempted to say Te Karakia (the prayer) is a meditation on divisiveness and togetherness, but it’s far from theatrically passive. It is unpredictable and provocative, engaging our hearts and minds as the flawed characters we come to know very well challenge us with their actions. (I have to say it: as a socio-political play pitched from individualised perspectives, it has everything Black Watch lacks.)  

Under O’Donnell’s assured direction, its non-linear structure flows effortlessly on Tony De Goldi’s traverse setting – his line of telegraph poles brings Calvary to the Waikato countryside – superbly lit by Jennifer Lal, enhanced by a stunning soundscape from Stephen Gallagher.

All six perfectly-cast actors are exemplary, with Miriama McDowell and Tim Foley especially manifesting the central couple’s formative experiences through childhood and adolescence to young adulthood with a seeming ease that belies the great skill involved.

Back in the 1960s, impressionable young Matthew Connell (Foley) is being brought up by his farmer father Gareth (Paul McLaughlin) and paternal grandmother Elsbeth (Donogh Rees) according to the strictures of Exclusive Brethren belief. Indeed Structure, Stricture and Scripture are their bywords.

Ranea (Miriama McDowell) is the daughter of Tohu (Calvin Tuteao), who works for ‘Mr Connell’ on land that once belonged to his late wife’s family. His 1970s dream – shared by Ranea as soon as he tells her about it – is to buy the South Block back, at a fair market rate, and become his own man. But the Connells have owned it for generations, their people are buried there … History started with them (yeah right).

The key theme and plot drivers are set from the moment Ranea and Matthew, as primary school kids, race each other to the bus stop from opposite directions. The winner gets to teach the other what’s special to them: a prayer or hymn when Matthew wins; te reo when Ranea wins.

That it is 1967 is neatly established with the new decimal coins, brought into being by Mr Muldoon (Under Secretary to the Minister of Finance at the time). Thus Muldoon is established, to return 14 years on – off stage but germaine to the story – as the remote prime minister who decrees the tour may go ahead.

Belz is also adept at ensuring whatever he uses for one purpose then gets used for another. Thus 1981 finds Kiri Te Kanawa front-paged for being chosen to sing at the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, and also becoming an object for the thwarted relieving of Matthew’s repressed sexual tension.

Most impressively, Gareth’s secret love of rugby and his giving a model aeroplane kit to his son establishes a clandestine dimension to their relationship (rugby, the radio and birthday presents are not allowed), then pays off beautifully in dramatising the small plane escapade that stops the test match in Hamilton.  

Meanwhile the race-to-the-bus-stop ritual has become the marker for the passing of years. It is also where Ranea and Matthew’s paths diverge, as the result of a wilful act of sexual precociousness that becomes the catalyst for a guilt-based transaction involving land.

The whys and wherefores behind this act, which I won’t detail here, provoke disquiet and discussion for many after the show. While it is not beyond credibility and cannot be said to have come out of nowhere, it’s as shocking to us as it is – in different ways – for everyone involved. But its main function, as I see it, is to generate outcomes that are rooted in failures of integrity, and in that regard it resonates as allegorical.

By 1981 Matthew, excommunicated from the church and his family, has become a policeman in Auckland. It is the way he and cop colleague Phillip (Mark Ruka) – spoiling-for-a-fight – acquitted themselves on the dawn raids to flush out Samoan over-stayers that sees them both recruited to the Red Squad.

Ranea, in the meantime, has become politicised by her anti-tour activist cousin Uru, also played by Mark Ruka, with Rees, Tutaeo and McLaughlin doubling as activists too. And when she flushes out Matthew, at his grandmother’s grave, his new occupation is not apparent. Thus, as their relationship re-ignites, Belz deftly pits variations of the theme of repression against further questions and tests of integrity.

O’Donnell’s staging is equally deft and fluid. That six actors, abetted by the design elements, can manifest vivid mind-pictures of events that in fact involved thousands of polarised people, with a huge white cross dragged on to the field and a plane buzzing overhead, is astonishing. (We almost have to be grateful that even a competitively selected and commissioned Festival production remains constricted in cast-size and production values. Again, the better-resourced Scottish National Theatre can eat its proverbial heart out.)

Of course I expected the key confrontation would be between Ranea and Matthew, face-to-face in dynamic conflict. But no. Too obvious. The dramatic pay-off happens in the back of a paddy wagon … and you’ll have to see the play to find out more.

As for the resolution scene, with its opportunities for mutual understandings and forgiveness, I defy anyone not to want it to flow on into a happy, romantic ending. But what we get is an accurate snapshot of how things are. I have no doubt Belz ‘prays’, along with most of us, for a better outcome in the future but he’s not about to pretend that we’ve got there already,

Te Karakia is a must-see play for all generations.  


Melanie Webber March 5th, 2009

How interesting. Just back from seeing it in Auckland at the Herald Theatre as part of the Auckland Festival. It seems the play has been rewritten, excluding the father character.

It was fabulous, but would be interested to read about how and why it was changed.

Zia Lopez February 29th, 2008

Completely agree, Lou. It was like a jumble of really good ingredients that still needed to be mixed up and cooked, and it was not well served by the director either, who could have done a lot more to bring some cohesion to it all.

Lou February 29th, 2008

Wow, I feel like I must have seen a different play... but I was certainly at Downstage on Opening Night and am pretty sure it was Te Karakia! The production I saw hugely let down the text: under-playing what should have been key climactic moments, letting the staging - particularly the rolling bench - get in the way of the story... I was most disappointingly left feeling that the 1981 tour was incidental, as to me this production failed to fully weave together the personal with the socio-political context and bring it forward as anything more than a backdrop, that could have just as easily been anything else. But then again... I did think Black Watch was one of the best shows I have ever been priveleged to see.

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