The Pohutukawa Tree

Te Whaea National Dance and Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

20/10/2010 - 30/10/2010

Toi Whakaari Graduation Season 2010

Production Details

This year Toi Whakaari’s Graduation Season consists of two productions: The Pohutukawa Tree by Bruce Mason and Wild Cabbage by James Beaumont. 

The Pohutukawa Tree by one of New Zealand’s iconic playwrights is set in the 1950s New Zealand, a country on the cusp of change. A proud and spiritual Maori matriarch, Aroha attempts to instruct her children in Pakeha ways. But the post-war world of the 1950s has arrived and she is left increasingly isolated as everything she loves and stands for comes under siege.

Acting Graduate Rachel House directs this rarely-performed classic New Zealand text. Rachel has been involved in the arts industry as an actor and a director for 18 years. She has performed in a variety of productions from contemporary Maori plays to Shakespeare, touring nationally and internationally.

She has also performed in the international award winning feature films Whale Rider, Taika Waititi’s Eagle versus Shark and most recently Boy. Rachel has received Chapman Tripp Acting awards for Best Newcomer for Briar Grace-Smith’s one woman show Nga Pou Wahine, Best Supporting Actress for Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Most Outstanding Performance for Witi Ihimaera’s highly acclaimed Woman Far Walking

The Pohutukawa Tree performance on Wednesday 27 October will be AUDIO DESCRIBED for blind and visually impaired audience members. This is the first time Toi Whakaari offers an opportunity for visually impaired people to come and see the School’s production.Audience members will hear a live commentary of the performance through wireless one-ear receivers linked to a describer in a soundproof box at the rear of the theatre. Production Manager Sarah Adams said the initiative is in response to approaches from the Wellington branch of the Association of Blind Citizens New Zealand for theatres to make productions more accessible to visually impaired people.

The Pohutukawa Tree 
Wed 20 – Sat 30 October, 6.30pm (no show 24 & 25 October)
WHERE: Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Road, Newtown, Wellington
TICKETS: $18/$12
For more information and to book tickets go to 

Jonathan Kenyon:   Roy McDowell
Tola Newbery:   Rev Athol Sedgwick
James Tito:   Johnny Mataira
Moana Ete:   Aroha Mataira
Richard Osborne:   Dr. Lomas
Melissa Reeve:   Mrs. Atkinson
Bianca Seinafo:   Queenie Mataira
Helen Grant:   Sylvia Atkinson
Robert Hartley:   Claude Johnson
Chelsea Bognuda:   Mrs. Johnson/ Sergeant Robinson
Phillip Ward:   Clive Atkinson
Justin Hurst*:  George Rawlings
*Victoria University

Director:   Rachel House
Set and Costume Designer:   Rose Kirkup
Lighting Designer:   Morgan Whitfield
Sound Designer:   Alana Kelly
Production Manager:   Sarah Adams
Stage Manager:   Eleanor Cooke
Deputy Stage Manager:   Sophie Dowson
Set Construction Manager:   Richard Child
Props Master:   Amber Maxwell
Costume Supervisor:   Samantha Bell
Lighting Assistant & Operator:   Karena Letham
Sound Assistant & Operator:   Roslyn Craig
Assistant Stage Manager:   Joseph Mahoney
Set Build/ Show Crew:   Matt Eller
Set Build/ Show Crew:   Tessa Alderton
Props Assistant/ Show Crew:   Nicola Smith
Props Assistant/Show Crew:   Hamish Baxter-Broad
Costumiers:   Brighde Penn, Oliver Black, Charlotte Baptist, Sophie Tucker, Lisa Doherty, Amanda McBride, Cara Louise Waretini
Design Assistants:   Helen Boebel, Susan Douthett, Rachel Hilliar, Nina Smith-Stevens, Lucy Stone, Theo Wijnsma, Violet Wilson-Baird
Audio Description:   Erina Daniels
Waiata and haka composer:   Tweedie Waititi
Wedding song by Tweedie Waititi and Tama Waipara

Decline of Maori language gives play relevance

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 29th Oct 2010

The opening night of The Pohutukawa Tree, the first of two productions of wildly different New Zealand plays by the graduating students of Toi Whakaari, was given strong contemporary relevance by the announcement on Wednesday of the Waitangi Tribunal finding that te reo is in serious decline. 

Bruce Mason’s play, while seeming a bit moth-eaten at the edges with such things as a three act structure, an Ibsen-like feeding of information to the audience, and themes now commonplace in many plays by Maori and Pakeha writers, has an enduring strength, an almost operatic theatricality, that contemporary playwrights lack and never even strive for in these more timorous times: a dominant central character assailed by and aware of forces that cannot be withstood. 

Aroha Mataira faces not only the malign influences of the modern world on her two children, the rigidity of her Christian beliefs, her separation from her tribe, her legacy as the granddaughter of a great warrior chief and the threat of losing her home and her sacred land on which stands a gnarled old Pohutukawa tree. She faces them with stoic nobility: “I will go proud down to my death, for that is all that I have left.”

In Rose Kirkup’s setting the central issue of land in the play is powerfully emphasized with a vast bare stage edged with fallen Pohutukawa flowers. At the back are the bare hills, now devoid of totara and thick bush that, as one of the Pakeha proudly says, took just two generations to make look like rolling English countryside. Aroha’s Pohutukawa tree is suggested by a beam of light and falling flowers. At either side of the stage sit the actors who bring on the necessary props and furniture.

The wedding reception scene, that takes place in the Atkinson’s orchard adjoining Aroha’s land, is a realistic comic sequence showing the hollowness of Pakeha rituals but here the Pakeha are played as caricatures as are Mrs. Atkinson (well-meaning but gauche) and her daughter Sylvia (languid and spoilt), in the opening scene. By playing Mrs. Atkinson so broadly it makes it difficult to accept her in the final scene of the play when she is behaving as a decent, concerned neighbour. 

In a fine performance Moana Ete conveys the steely pride and the inflexibility of Aroha’s beliefs as well as her nobility and she is particularly effective when she sings at the wedding and is able to make it, as Mason envisaged, “a moment of time-stilling beauty.” 

The performance ends with a spectacular sequence giving the production an appropriately theatrical finale that is thrilling to watch and is totally different to, though not out of tune with, the one in Bruce Mason’s script.  
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Deep exploration and profound engagement not achieved

Review by John Smythe 21st Oct 2010

After decades of being kept alive in the high school curriculum and by the odd amateur group (e.g. Stagecraft’s 2008 production), Bruce Mason’s seminal New Zealand classic The Pohutukawa Tree received its second ever fully professional production, since it was written 55 years ago, only last year, thanks to the Auckland Theatre Company.

This Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School graduation production, directed by Rachel House, is therefore very welcome, despite the necessary casting of young actors in mature roles. What is less forgivable – to get this off my chest upfront – is the casting of two actors in Kiwi male roles who are not capable of playing their roles with a credible NZ accent (I believe they where born in the UK and went to high school in NZ before spending three years at Toi Whakaari).

Would any Kiwi actor go to a British drama school for three years fulltime, be cast as an English person in an English graduation play and fail to deliver the required accent? It’s inconceivable. What does it say about Toi Whakaari that actors are allowed to graduate into the NZ acting profession with this level of limitation on their skills? Is it expected that they will be able to survive here without ever playing New Zealanders? Or do they see it as fair enough that, while NZ actors constantly honour the integrity of other cultures by mastering their accents, it’ll be fine to just fudge it with homegrown material? Personally I feel it is an insult to the culture Bruce Mason worked so hard to distinguish with considerable flair and insight.

That said, the English-born acting student who arrived here most recently – Robert Hartley – does an excellent job of delivering Claude Johnson’s wedding speech in a Kiwi accent (not laid on with a trowel; just a natural Kiwi voice). And Richard Osborne (who I think hails from Liverpool) plays Dr Lomas with a smooth and credible Scottish accent.

The other non-Kiwi character – judiciously created by Mason to offer a ‘new chum’ perspective in contrast to the Kiwis (which is why it is so wrong to not to get all the voices right) – is the Rev Athol Sedgwick, played in an unadorned neutral voice by Maori actor Tola Newbery. (Am I missing a point here about the rationale for the casting?)

Jonathan Kenyon plays Roy McDowell with emotional intelligence but lacks credibity as the state-school educated son of a Waikato grocer. I simply do not believe Phillip Ward’s Clive Atkinson – owner of the citrus orchard and a returned serviceman – belongs to a family that has inhabited and exploited Te Parenga for 75 years. That he flails about without connecting to the given circumstances of his character does not help. If these two actors were not offered intensive dialect coaching (a common occurrence in our acting profession), they have been short-changed.

Fortunately there is cultural credibility in the three Maori roles. Bianca Seinafo is delightfully bright, naïve and questing as Queenie Mataira. James Tito masters Johnny Mataira’s transition from childish fantasist, through angry disaffected youth to wiser young man, with compelling truth at every stage.

The role of Aroha Mataira, the widowed matriarch trying to find equilibrium between her Maori heritage and Christianity is a major challenge. Her great grandfather Whetumarama, the ‘shining star’ rangatira and warrior who won the battle to keep his tribal land only to lose it ‘slice by slice’ on Pakeha time, vies within her with Jesus Christ, the ‘Light of the World’, who has liberated her from a life of bitterness and anger. Moana Ete treads too lightly over a role that needs to be imbued with a profound depth of knowledge, faith and passion.

Mason has ensured that every character is strongly committed to a point of view in this post-war society, where the wedding of Sylvia Atkinson to Hawkes Bay farmer George Rawlings epitomises Pakeha New Zealand’s sense of optimism for a future of growth and prosperity. But while each peak and trough in the drama is marked, their heartfelt implications for the characters simply do not register as strongly as they should.

The journey Mrs Atkinson (Isobel) takes from complacent middle class wife and mother-of-the-bride to realising how ignorant and patronising she has been towards Aroha and her people is clearly articulated by Melissa Reeve but not deeply felt, or not so it communicates anyway. A lack of change in her immaculate appearance doesn’t help, given she has slept over at the ailing Mrs Mataira’s house for the last five nights in Act Three.

Helen Grant offers a properly stroppy Sylvia Atkinson but again there is more emotional complexity in this role than we get. Chelsea Bognuda stops just short of caricaturing Mrs Johnson at the wedding, and – in the only cross-gender piece of casting – gives an intelligent and effectively minimalist account of Sergeant Robinson.

Set and costume designer Rose Kirkup has opted for an open stage with a bare hills skyline, representing the land’s transformation over generations from “thick virgin bush” to “rolling English countryside”, which is conceptually fine. But the way furniture and actors inhabit the space does little to evoke the exterior or interior of the Mataira’s cottage, let alone the citrus orchard beyond.

The actors sit on chairs down either side of the performance space behind red strips of shredded Pohutukawa flowers, which is fine. But there is no logic to their points of entry and exit. When they enter the presumably small and modest cottage from stage right, then exit up and over the resounding wooden steps that bisect the auditorium, we are clumsily reminded that this is a theatre and any imaginative transportation to the time and place of the play is lost. Why?

It’s fine to leave us to imagine the titular Pohutukawa tree and the dripping of shredded red ‘flowers’ from above is an excellent visual metaphor, but every time a character refers to it, it’s in a different place. Why?

If any of these devices were part of a coherent stylistic convention, I might buy them, but as far as I can see, they are not. However it does work well to replace the script’s two grieving kuia with a silhouetted evocation of the community at Te Matea, where Johnny is at last using a taiaha properly.

This production of The Pohutukawa Tree is a clean presentation of a play that requires deep exploration and profound engagement. Nevertheless more than one acquaintance in the audience commented that it’s amazing how insightful and relevant the play is, given its age. As I have said before, New Zealand may now be mature enough to fully appreciate the value of this extraordinary play.


John Smythe October 22nd, 2010

I have been remiss in not properly acknowledging Tola Newbery’s excellent tracking of Sedgwick’s journey from wide-eyed ‘new chum’, through starry-eyed discoverer of the community in Te Matea, to earnest advocate of Christian humility and self-denial in the final showdown with Aroha.

I meant to mention the interesting way Rachel House lifts that final debate from the clutches of naturalism, allowing the frail and dying Aroha to argue her position with full strength. While it can be confusing for an audience when a new theatrical convention is introduced so late in the game, it certainly brings clarity to the question of cultural subjugation being the price of spiritual peace-of-mind. The whole role of Christianity in the colonising process comes into stark focus here.

I should also have mentioned the excellence of Morgan Whitfield’s lighting design and Alana Kelly’s culturally reverberant sound design, speaking eloquently for what has been lost.

(It’s no excuse but my premature publication was due to needing to get away to Wild Cabbage after another hectic day, constantly interrupted day by having to update the ‘Hobbit hooha’ links.) 

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