25/02/2014 - 01/03/2014
02/03/2006 - 09/03/2006
By Helen Pearse Otene
Directed by Jim Moriarty
Te Rakau Hua a te Woa Tapu
New Zealand’s longest-touring national Maori theatre-in education company presents a moving story about friendship, loyalty, madness and redemption – seen through the eyes of a Battalion veteran, and relayed to hsi wayward young charges.
Three separate Festival performances – Upper Hutt, Cannon’s Creek, Otaki – then on a schools tour from Kaitaia travelling south for 26 weeks.
Presented as part of the Putahi Festival 2014
Written by Helen Pearse-Otene, The Battalion is a moving story about friendship, loyalty, madness and redemption – seen through the eyes of Paora Matene, a war veteran, and relayed to his wayward charges Rimini and George.
Sent back to their whanau in the ‘one cow town’ of Tamariri, Rimini and George aren’t interested in any of the locals or their family history – they just want to get back to the city..
It was the same for five young men in 1939. Drawn in by the excitement of war, they run away to the army and join the 28th Maori Battalion. Thus begins the adventure of a lifetime, from their training in England, to their first encounter with the enemy in Greece. The two stories collide and the past confronted with the youngsters learning valuable life lessons.
“Battalion is an enchanting and emotional experience. It is a play that implores us to acknowledge the past…” – NZ International Arts Festival, Lumiere Reader Review
Venue: Studio 77
Dates: 25th February – 1st March
Times: 6.30pm, except Friday where we will perform a 10am matinee
Koro Paora: Jim Moriarty
Eleni Pulloi: Sandra Malesic
Sue Lewis: Vanessa Kumar
Rimini: Jackie Eagle
George: Saasha Riddell
1 hr 30 min, no interval
True power and wonder in the showing
Review by Maraea Rakuraku 28th Feb 2014
There is something poignantly moving about watching kids of diverse cultures acting out roles that their grandparents, great-grandparents or in this case, given how young they are, great great grandparents lived for real. At one stage my hair is prickling at the back of my neck and I feel tears welling as it’s likely, they don’t even know just how significant it is that they re-enact this story of Māori involvement in the Second World War as part of the 28th Māori Battalion.
The Battalion starts with (what I recognise is) a whakaeke (entrance onto stage) that could hold-up at any Te Matatini performance and the flawless harmonies executed during ‘Au e ihu’ ( a waiata synonymous with the 28th Maori Battalion) would not be amiss at a Tongan funeral. The costuming is so strong, I find myself responding on quite an emotional level to the wāhine as they move around the stage, potentially making it noa for what is about to occur in the next hour or so.
There are strands of narrative, with the main one hanging on a RSA-based Māori Battalion veteran Koro Paora (Jim-does-he-ever-age Moriarty) who (for reasons I don’t quite get) temporarily assumes care of two wayward sisters, Rimini (Jakie Eagle) and George (Saasha Riddell). There’s a bit of wax on /wax off Karate Kid lessons going on and the kōtiro certainly bring their share of believable sass as they witness what seems to be his mental deterioration.
What follows is the all too familiar arc of the troubled soldier haunted by wartime memories. That isn’t to be dismissive or disrespectful because as the mokopuna of 28th Māori Battalion soldiers, my whānau lives still with the price Māori men paid suffering from undiagnosed and untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The mystery of what haunts Koro Paora, dare I say it, is almost missed (by me). Some of the one-liners are lost because there is just so much dialogue and it does make the audience work that little bit harder, making it difficult to follow. To their credit the key cast manage that admirably. Even in saying that though, some of the delivery is perfect and it seems like the cast is enjoying it.
The scene between the German POW in Crete and nga hoia having a dig at the status of te reo Māori in this country gets a hearty laugh. I do wonder at the purpose of one of the characters (Sue Wilson) that couldn’t be explained in a sentence although the actor, Vanessa Kumar, plays her part well. However, that just may be me.
Once the telling part of the set-up is done the true power and wonder of The Battalion is in the showing. And, what a showing it is. Through music, dancing, singing and kapa haka accompanied by a sturdy narration, there is a re-enactment of recruiting, embarking, time on the ships, furlough in England and then on to fighting in Italy and Crete. It’s like a speed history lesson of the 28th Maori Battalion.
I’m thankful it’s shown this way because after the initial set-up, which is full of dialogue, my ears could do with a rest from having to concentrate that hard. Instead all my senses are engaged in the spectacular, as the performers give it their all, which is incredibly humbling. It is energetic, well-paced and brilliantly executed. The traverse stage does wonders in capturing and maintaining attention, as does the simplified set of what appears to be wheeled soundboxes.
Sure there are bits of the story that don’t quite fly. Would a troubled kid fess up to a long-held trauma a week after first meeting someone and after playing-up? Introducing that bit of information over halfway seems awkward. Some of the expositional dialogue, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to drag. At one stage, I do find myself wondering if a pākehā woman (Sue Lewis) would be that au fait with things Māori? And, though I may have heard wrong, there is a misunderstanding around the awarding of medals.
However, that may have just have been a verbal slip-up because that comes from the mouth of Jim Moriarty, and as one audience member says, He is too much. Tumeke katoa. Yes, yes he is. Kei te mihi au kia koe e Jim. Ko koe he rangatira, ehoa. You truly are a powerhouse. What a pleasure it is to watch someone of your pedigree perform. Someone of less stature I suspect wouldn’t be up for it because it is a physically and emotionally demanding role. Moriarty is the lynchpin holding it altogether. Nevertheless, he doesn’t overshadow the cast. He is a truly generous performer. What a class act.
I’ve said this before and I have to reiterate, Te Rakau is revolutionary and unique in that through theatre there is an education of the kids involved which then translates through to the audience. What a fantastic way to engage with history and therefore your place within it. How transformative that must be. How empowering. Other than school productions, where else would you experience this plethora of untapped, raw talent? And then when it’s over, have them perform a number of waiata immortalised post Second World War to again whakanoa the space.
There are layers to the work done by Te Rakau that encompasses tikanga Māori effortlessly and I applaud them for doing so. Ngamihi kia koutou.
The Battalion is showing as part of the inaugural Te Puhiatanga a te Rehia, Māori Theatre Festival at Studio 77, Fairlie Terrace, Kelburn. Other works include The Beautiful Ones by Hone Kouka and Not in My Neighbourbood by 2013 Bruce Mason Award Winner Jamie McCaskill.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Tales of tenacity simply told
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Mar 2006
BATTALION – which is part of Schoolfest, the International Arts Festival’s special programme for schools, sponsored by Victoria University – is being presented in only three public performances during the festival. The first performance was presented last week in Upper Hutt, the second was held last night in Cannons Creek, and the final performance will be given in the Otaki School Hall tomorrow.
This simply told story of five young men who escape their one-cow town for adventure, or, as one of them says, to meet a girl he isn’t related to, and join the 28th Maori Battalion to fight the Germans is told in recollection by one of the survivors, Paora Metene (Maaka Pohatu), while today as an old man he is trying to cope with two rebellious teenage sisters, one of whom is named, though she isn’t aware of it, after a battlefield where her great-grandfather fought and died.
Though we are meant to see that the young women’s problems of today have to be faced and fought with the same tenacity and courage as was exhibited by the young men who went off to war in Europe, dramatically speaking they are a distraction, particularly after the sombre and very moving opening when seven women receive telegrams telling them of the death of a loved one. This made their problems seem insignificant.
Later, the scene of a fatal skirmish in an olive grove in Crete is played with pathos and a furious energy. Though the acting of the well-drilled cast was forceful throughout, as were the singing and the haka, subtlety was missing.
But the production under Jim Moriarty’s capable direction scored with its simplicity: the telegrams, the sticks for guns, the white overalls for uniforms, a mirror ball for an English dance hall, and the scene when the men left Wellington in 1940.
The most touching moment, however, was when a member of the Maori Battalion stood up to say a few words from the auditorium.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Full-on to a fault
Review by John Smythe 28th Mar 2006
Theatrically, Battalion explores World War Two in a very different way than King and Country (reviewed 27/2) revealed the impact of World War One on New Zealand families and communities. While the latter simply told its stories and used a brass band to stimulate audience imaginations and emotions, Battalion goes all out with documentary theatre-in-education conventions to get its stories across.
Jim Moriarty set up Te Rakau Trust (Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu) as a change mechanism and wellness tool for people in prisons, remand centres and at-risk communities. Their core activity is to use theatre to help people face, embrace and dance with their own life stories. "It helps participants make sense of their own and their collective pasts, and helps them to engage in a healthy and holistic way with the present," he told the Community Employment Group in 2003 (Employment Matters, vol 14, no 6).
Playwright Helen Pearse-Otene (Moriarty’s partner in life and the Trust) has built on the same principles in writing Battalion, which is about to embark on a 26-week schools tour commencing in Kaitaia following its NZIAF School Fest. A team of 13 performers blend dramatised scenes, stylised evocations, kapa haka, waiata and hip-hop to explore the stories of 28th Mâori Battalion WWII veteran Paora Matene (Maaka Pohatu), and two young at-risk sisters, Rimene (Teri Crawford) and Georgia (Sheila Ngawaka) .
Sent back from their dysfunctional home life in the city to their whanau in the ‘one cow town’ of Tamariri – where Sue Lewis the social worker (Heather Timms) keeps her eye on them – Georgia and Rimene find themselves having to help their koro Paora clean up his house (or was it the hall?) in preparation for a special visitor from Greece. But the girls just want to get back to the city, in the same way Paora and his bros wanted to escape the tedium of Tamariri for the excitement of war with the Mâori Battalion. The idea is that Paora and Rimene have both got stuff bottled up and in the process of working on this project together, they become agents for each other’s release. Pearse-Otene has set up strong dramatic moments that have to be honoured in performance to work.
It turns out that Rimene, for example, has been raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She hasn’t been able to talk about it with anyone. So when she does, thanks to Paora, it needs to be cathartic. Instead it is delivered with matter-of-fact detachment, in a way that is probably entirely appropriate in the Trust’s usual work, where the speaker has now come to terms with it and moved on. In the context of this play, she needs to create the experience of release.
As for Paora, his traumas date back decades. First, he has believed for 60-odd years that his little brother, Jo Boy (David Henry) died in an olive grove in Crete. Their big brother-little brother relationship (shades of Maurice Shadbolt’s Once on Chunuk Bair and Patricia Grace’s Tu) is tracked through nightmare-fuelled re-enactments that culminate in the key olive grove trenches scene. A Greek girl, expressing the gratitude of her village for the Kiwi presence, brings them a wounded German prisoner, Matthias Schwarz (Jordan Hall), shares a close moment with Paora and gives him her scarf as a memento. Jo Boy is shell-shocked, off his kai and is likely to starve to death. Having cringed at the way the Mâori boys mangle the German language ("Shoot me now!" – a nice touch of humour here), Matthias offers to feed Jo Boy. He takes him in his arms. A touching moment of break-through humanity. But when their guards are down, Matthias grabs a rifle and, trying to escape, he shoots an officer and Jo Boy before he is shot himself. In a frenzy of grief, believing Jo Boy is dead, Paora repeatedly bayonets Matthias.
Now, 60 years on, Paoroa has discovered Jo Boy did not die but lived on in occupied Crete, being passed off as Greek by the local villagers. When the war was over he married Katini Poulloi (Powley Pearse-Otene), and never tried to contact his whanau or return to New Zealand. He died of old age and now Katini is bringing his body home. That gap, that double loss, is a big thing for Paora to deal with. And that’s not all. When the Germans discovered the mutilated body of Matthias, they rounded up some of the local men and shot them in retribution. But when Katini tells Paora this ("We paid dearly for that"), it has no dramatic impact.
Battalion has all the makings of a powerful redemption story, but redemption has to be earned. In the Cannons Creek performance at least, up on stage in the quite large and wide Hosanna Fellowship Hall, the delivery was too full-on, to say the least (perhaps they were worried about the acoustics). On the up side, the named actors all have an intelligent understanding of their roles, the whole cast is committed and disciplined in making the inventive staging work and their singing and dancing is superb. The recorded music and sound effects are very well integrated and a mirror ball is ingeniously used to evoke a sky full of German paratroopers. But the all-important the moments of truth, breakthrough and turnaround were not given their dramatic due.
That said, in typical Te Rakau style, the show ends with an open floor for feedback and discussion, and schools are offered a day-long workshop to process the issues raised in the play and devise their response. And this cast has not come to this work through drama school. Nor are they necessarily seeking a future in theatre. Even so, with all that thoroughly researched and well-conceived dramatic potential already in the script, it seems a shame that its full value is not realised.
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