The Pohutukawa Tree
10/09/2008 - 20/09/2008
Bruce Mason classic celebrates 50th
Stagecraft’s major production for 2008 also celebrates the theatre society’s 50th anniversary
Written by Bruce Mason, author of the beloved End of the Golden Weather, The Pohutukawa Tree is seminal both because it was one of the first plays to deal with the relationship between Māori and Pākehā, and because it was one of the first New Zealand plays written with a New Zealand context.
Director Ewen Coleman says Bruce Mason’s play was an exceptionally fitting choice for a 50th anniversary production.
"The play was written locally – in fact you had Bruce working on one side of town on this play and on the other side you had some ex-Workers Education Association people putting a group together that would become Stagecraft," says Ewen.
"Bruce didn’t belong to Stagecraft but he was the theatre critic who reviewed our very first production, calling it the "the outstanding play of the BDL festival".
Set in 1947, The Pohutukawa Tree tells the story of Aroha Mataira who lives on the land her ancestors fought for at Te Parenga. As her Pākehā neighbours struggle to understand her ties with the land, her children’s actions cause her shame and disgrace and a dying pohutukawa tree becomes a symbol of her despair.
Ewen Coleman says the play was first performed by the fledgling New Zealand Players as a workshop production in their rehearsal rooms in Newtown, Wellington.
"Then in 1959 the BBC made a production for TV. There’s a lovely story Richard Campion who directed the Newtown show tells, about how they asked the woman who had played the lead in Wellington to go over to London to assist this famous actress in how to play the Māori role. About half way through, the famous actress turned to the producer and said: "This is stupid. This woman can do it far better than me. I want to withdraw. You use her." [from transcript of a video interview with Richard Campion by Janinka Greenwood, 2002]
The international attention led to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation making a radio play but while the stage version continued to be performed in amateur settings throughout the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t until 1984 – two years after Bruce Mason’s death – that The Pohutukawa Tree received its first, fully-staged professional production at Wellington’s Downstage theatre. Richard Campion was the director.
Ewen says his production will respect the classic nature of the play.
"I’m not making any judgment calls about the issues the play raises," says Ewen. "I just want to produce this as realistically as possible and it’s for the audience to decide whether the issues are still relevant today."
The Pohutukawa Tree is on at the Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street and runs from 10 – 20 September. Tickets are $22 waged, $20 unwaged, $18 for groups of 10 or more and $15 members.
Bookings, ph 385 0532 or book online at www.stagecraft.co.nz
Cast in order of appearance:
Queenie Mataira: Mani Dunlop
Roy McDowell: Theo Taylor
Reverend Athol Sedgewick: Jeff Osborne
Aroha Mataira: Salli Rowe
Isobel Atkinson: Deanne Graham
Sylvia Atkinson: Ella Lucas
Johnny Mataira: Jaazaniah Salanoa
Clive Atkinson: Deone Smith
Mrs Rawlings: Jenny Parkin
Mr Rawlings: Phil Saxby
George Rawlings: Malcolm Campbell
Best Man: Andrew McCormick
Bridesmaid: Katharine Haddock
Claude Johnstone: Tom Rainbird
Bertha Johnstone: Terry Binding
Dr David Lomas: John Chalmers
Woman guest: Margaret Hill
Sergeant Robinson: Colin Barrett
Kauma tua: Rhys Mulholland-Winiata
Ma ori Advisor: Rhys Mulholland-Winiata
Production Manager: Joy Hellyer
Stage Manager: Iona Anderson
Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Pullar
Prompt: Leigh Cain
Lighting design: David Phillips
Lighting operator: Andrew Bayliss
Lighting assistants: Fausto Brusamolino, Kim Thomas, Megan Easterbrook-Smith
Sound designer: Barry Meyers
Sound operator: Susan Page
Set design: Ewen Coleman, Salli Rowe
Set construction: Sam Perry
Assisted by: Barry Meyers, Darrell Haddon, Stephen Fearnley, Peter Swain, Matt Todd
Props: Sheena Hudson, Andrea Wiechern
Wardrobe: Annabel Hensley
Ably assisted by: Jane Craven, Alison Golder, Sue Miller, Margi Crawford
Poster design: Tabitha Arthur
Photography: Jack Wass
FOH: Joy Hellyer, Paul Kay and Stagecraft members
Opening night supper: Rodney Bane
Review by Lynn Freeman 17th Sep 2008
It is interesting to see this play, set on a last patch of land still in Māori ownership in a rural area, at a time when there is a rush of Māori settlements with the current government.
It’s dated and a Pakeha writing about Māori in the 1950s, but doing so with respect if not pinpoint accuracy. The issues Mason looks at aren’t historic – Māori-Pakeha relations, their different attitudes to land, young pregnancies, alcohol-fuelled violence in young men, rural to urban migration.
Salli Rowe plays Aroha Mataira, the keeper of Māori values and her iwi’s history, with pride and vulnerability.
Her children Queenie (played as a sweet-hearted girl turned streetwise young woman by Mani Dunlop), and Johnny (Jaazaniah Salanoa investing the role with a restless but deep anger), come to betray Aroha, like her iwi and the Pakeha she works for.
Ella Lucas stood out as Sylvia, giving the Pakeha bride-to-be some real 21st century attitude, Jeff Osborne was a sympathetic Rev Athol Sedgewick, and Deanne Graham gave an impassioned performance as Isobel Atkinson.
The second half drags with Mason becoming bogged down in religious discussion, but that’s a script issue – director Ewen Coleman and his cast have brought this play back to life.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
A great piece of theatre
Review by Kate Blackhurst 14th Sep 2008
If Chekhov had been a Kiwi he might have written The Pohutukawa Tree. All the great themes are present – connection to the land; personal relationships; the dichotomy between preservation and progress; struggles against history and ancestry – but Bruce Mason’s play is regarded as a New Zealand classic and this production by Stagecraft Theatre proves the label is justified.
Aroha Mataira is the matriarch of the last Maori family at Te Parenga on the land that used to belong to her iwi, Ngati-Raukura, who have since moved to Tamatea. Her ancestor, Whetumarama won a famous victory over the Pakeha here and he planted the eponymous tree on the site. It droops throughout the play threatening to clobber people on the head; is it a menace that should be cut down or should it remain as a memento mori to the blood spilled between Maori and Pakeha?
Of course this is all highly symbolic and your stance on this determines your attitude to all other matters. Aroha refuses to leave, declaring, “No tree is cut; no stone disturbed – this is a holy place, now and forever.” Her opposite, Clive Atkinson (brilliantly portrayed by Deone Smith with a gamut of awkward, impatient gestures), owns the land now. His family have lived here for three generations but he is quick to sell the land if it is not making a profit. He advises her that she shouldn’t live in the past and that all things must come to an end. And that is the play in a nutshell.
Aroha Mataira is built up before we meet her and has great mana to uphold; her daughter says “everyone looks up to my mum”. Fortunately Salli Rowe is more than up to the task and delivers a powerful performance of majestic authority. The question is; is Aroha too tough? She is afraid her children will grow up and forget her teaching, but has she taught them love? She warns Queenie, “Your man will leave you when you are fat and ugly”. Johnny clings to her and tells her she is too big as he protests, “I’m just a Maori boy who wants to live in my own way”. Aroha’s pride supplants her love and she suffers in a Shakespearean manner from her own hubris.
Mani Dunlop is excellent as the inquisitive and bright-eyed Queenie Mataira leaning forward to ask questions, and she interrogates people a lot, with a guile-free charm alien from today’s cynical street savvy teenagers. Her loss of innocence is sensitively handled as she approaches adulthood more with a bang than a whimper. Johnny Mataira (Joazaniah Salanoa) embodies the adolescent tension of wanting to rebel and belong. His rangy energy, love of horses and obsession with Robin Hood (another legendary figure who hated usurpers) sits uneasily with his barely suppressed vitality and discovery of whiskey. When Aroha tells him he needs to put away childish things and become a man, she does not expect him to do it in so dramatic a fashion.
Both Johnny and Queenie tell their mother, “I do it because I like it.” Aroha’s Bible advises against worrying about tomorrow but it is hard not to. The young folk live for the moment and don’t think about the consequences, encouraged by the bloke from the pub, Roy McDowell (Theo Taylor) who slouches about the stage with comfortable insouciance. The Reverend Sedgwick (Jeff Osborne), a self-confessed “Bible banging dreary who comes in to show you where fun ends and responsibility begins”, is the intermediary between mother and children; Maori and Pakeha. Played with exactly the right balance of wisdom and humility, he always has a slight smile and a lot of sense. He tells Aroha, “I am a newcomer and do not know your ways”, and when he confesses, “You make me ashamed of my race, scouring the world for land,” Aroha tells him “I feel a spirit in you; a strength”.
The suggestion of something flirtatious between Sedgewick and Isobel Atkinson (played with calm aplomb by Deanne Graham) is echoed in the hint of attraction between the not-so-blushing bride to be Sylvia Atkinson (a superbly sullen Ella Lucas) and Johnny. There are half-glimpsed insinuations in much of the dialogue. The opening scenes are slightly rushed but the actors all soon settle into their rhythm. Some of the speeches are a little heavy handed as playwrights have a propensity to over-moralise: “Maori and Pakeha together will make the land fruitful but who takes the fruit?”
Ewen Coleman deals with this by playing it straight. His assured direction ensures that we get every nuance while he doesn’t wring it out. The realism of the play creates tableaux – you could freeze the action at any moment and it would make a perfect picture. The confrontations come thick and fast and all are given their visual moment: old versus young; Maori versus Pakeha; Christ and Christianity versus Kaumatua and Tikanga; the ‘perfect wedding’ versus the shotgun variety; parents versus children; husband versus wife.
The picture framing is enhanced by the fantastic costumes (Annabel Hensley and her team have surpassed themselves with the wardrobe) and the sensational set. The house with veranda, which doubles as the grounds for the wedding scene, opens up at halftime to reveal the inside of the house. Incidentally, one of the most affecting touches is the oblivious disrespect of the Pakeha who don’t remove their shoes in the Mataira household, and then discuss the family as though they were not there.
The wedding scene is a highlight, providing an opportunity for plot-filled speeches that would otherwise seem out of place. John Chalmers gives a frankly gorgeous Scottish cameo as Dr David Lomas, Tom Rainbird delivers a great drunken wedding speech as Claude Johnstone, and the hapless groom stumbling over his inauspicious thank yous is superbly captured by Malcolm Campbell.
The pace drops slightly in the fourth act but on the whole this is a great piece of theatre with consistently solid acting. The underpinning direction is so good that you hardly notice it, although you are aware of it in everything. The Pohutukawa Tree, Stagecraft’s 50th anniversary production, is an extremely apt way to celebrate their half century.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer
Great play and playwright still to be given his due
Review by John Smythe 11th Sep 2008
Theatreview is reviewing this Stagecraft 50th anniversary production of The Pohutukawa Tree because it seems amateur productions are the only way we get to see Bruce Mason’s extraordinary play.* Only once has it received a fully professional production in New Zealand, at Downstage in 1984. In the 24 years since, professional practitioners who have mounted countless productions of Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams et al, have studiously avoided our own modern classic, which traverses similar territory to the more-familiar favourites of the above-mentioned luminaries. Why this neglect? It’s a disgrace!
Fifty-plus years on, far from seeing The Pohutukawa Tree as dated, we have the opportunity to engage with its observations and insights from a position of much greater historical, social and political awareness. Even more so, the spiritual dimension which fuels the final debate that literally brings Aroha Mataira to her life and death choice between pride or sacrifice, leaves us with much to chew on: is the Christian (and also Buddhist) teaching of live-for-the-day selflessness the true road to enlightened fulfilment or was it – is it – cynically exploited as a means of increasing the wealth of the ruling classes by dispossessing the less powerful of their land and culture?
The central premise is this: what if a Māori woman, steeped in the bloody history of her people and their hard-won – or rather hard-retained – land, dissolved her hatred of Pakeha by turning to Christianity with equal fervour, only to witness the land, Te Parenga Pa, and all her moral values being taken from her by stealth and time: "slice by slice, from the whale."
It’s no coincidence this woman is called Aroha. The ‘war’ that rages within her is one we all know in our various quests for love: the faith, the risk, the betrayal, the hurt, the final need to be at peace with oneself … Meanwhile her late-teenage children are discovering their own ‘loves’; daughter Queenie’s attraction to romance, clothes, pop music and sex; son Johnny’s attraction to horse riding, heroic escapades, leaving a mark on the world and alcohol.
The play is set a few years after World War Two, at the site of a bloody battle for land which the great Whetumarama successfully defended; land since sold by the Ngati Raukura and turned into a commercial orchard, where all that remains of the once lush native bush is one ailing Pohutukawa tree with its blood-red flowers on the last acre owned by the all-but departed tribe.
Aroha emerges as an isolated extremist; a classic tragic heroine whose fatal flaw is her unshakeable faith in a Christian god of love with all its colonial manifestations of hard work, due obedience and unimpeachable moral behaviour. She also reveres her ancestor Whetumarama and sees the land he fought to defend as sacred.
The post-war mood for progress is exemplified by the Atkinson family – father Clive, mother Isobel and about-to-be married daughter Sylvia – who own the orchard, employ the Matairas and, while patronisingly kindly in their dealings with them, assume ‘the old ways’ will quietly fade away as the Māori assimilate.
Importantly, Aroha believes the Ngati Raukura who have decamped to the coast are living dissolute lives – a view which is vividly counterpointed by a starry-eyed Rev. Athol Sedgwick, whose cultural perspective on their way of live is nevertheless cringe-worthy and dramatically interesting because of that.
Mason offers no easy divisions of goodies and baddies, nor easy answers to the timeless dilemmas that fall and regenerate from The Pohutukawa Tree. For my money this is a richer and more important play than any one Chekhov or Ibsen play. For its cultural resonance beyond the distilled domestic issues, I’d rate it the equal of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
In this Ewen Coleman-directed production Salli Rowe (Aroha), Mani Dunlop (Queenie) and Jaazaniah Salanoa (Johnny) give good accounts of the central roles, with Rowe especially finding strength in deep-felt stillness. Ella Lucas brings a comic sullenness to Sylvia, Deanne Graham traces the arc of Isobel’s growing awareness effectively and John Chalmers offers a sound Scottish Dr Lomas.
Low key and quite well paced, the production could mark some key emotional moments better and find more comic texture in the wedding scene, not least with the ‘battle of the songs’. And given the orientation, the audience could be included much more as guests, by bringing the houselights up and addressing the speeches – priceless cultural artefacts that they are – to all of us.
The staging is good, given the limited resources of an amateur production and the Gryphon’s small black box space. They get away with placing the wedding on the modified verandah, then simply taking the front off the house for the interior scenes in Acts 2 and 3 (Mason envisaged the set revolving, so the front door moves to the back wall, which would have require resetting the tree at the diagonally opposite corner).
The lighting is distractingly patchy and the sound effects are poor – suggesting, for example, that Jezebel the horse is gigantic and looming above us. Otherwise Stagecraft must be commended for celebrating its 50th anniversary with this play and doing it reasonable justice.
But here’s the thing. Just reading a play on the syllabus cannot reveal it as well as a full production can; indeed (as with Shakespeare) if the teacher is uninspiring it can put people off for life. Similarly amateur productions with inevitably limited resources and talent at their disposal can reinforce notions that the play is tired and dated (which is what I once thought of Chekhov and Ibsen until I saw good professional productions).
To be fully appreciated, The Pohutukawa Tree requires professional production of the standard we’ve come to expect when the above-mentioned playwrights of modern classics are produced. When will professional theatre companies and directors move on past playing safe with the tried and true best of the best from overseas – so often resurrected here because they’ve been revived in London or New York – and do their REAL job: reflect us to ourselves by finally honouring the work of a master playwright whose potential was probably never reached because – a prophet in his own land – he was never given his due when it came to professional productions.
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**The Pohutukawa Tree, written in early 1955, was performed four times only in August 1957 by the New Zealand Players Theatre Workshop in Wellington, jointly directed by Richard Campion and Bruce Mason. After extensive revision it was performed three more times in Wellington in October, then twice in Auckland in November 1957. BBC Television produced it in 1959 for their Sunday Night Theatre series with a cast of expatriate New Zealanders and Australians. Mason’s own radio adaptation was produced by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, aired on ZB Sunday Showcase in 1960, the same year it was published, and it has since sold far more copies than any other NZ play.
It was staged by a largely amateur society in Llangefni, Angelsea, Wales but did not appear again on a New Zealand stage until Mason himself directed a semi-professional production for the Southern Comedy Players in 1963. A number of amateur productions, including a New Independent Theatre season directed by Māori practitioner Derek Wooster in 1977, have kept it alive in the decades since. From the late 1960s it has also been studied and sometimes performed in secondary schools, and examined in School Certificate/NCEA. But it wasn’t until 1984 – nearly two years after Bruce Mason’s death and 27 years after the Players’ workshop production – that Richard Campion finally directed its first full professional season, at Downs.[i]
[i] Bruce Mason, The Pohutukawa Tree, Price Milburn, 1960, p5; Howard McNaughton, ‘Drama’, The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English, ed. Terry Sturm, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp 341-342; John Thomson, New Zealand Drama, an illustrated history 1930-1980, Oxford University Press (Auckland), 1984, p32; John Smythe, Downstage Upfront, VUP 2004, p273.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer