Theatre: Awatea

Actors Geraldine Brody, George Henare and Te Kohe Tuhaka perform in the play Awatea. Photo / Natalie Slade
Actors Geraldine Brody, George Henare and Te Kohe Tuhaka perform in the play Awatea. Photo / Natalie Slade

Actor George Henare first appeared in Bruce Mason's drama Awatea 44 years ago, playing the son to the proud blind father. Now he returns, this time playing the dad.

It was 1970 and young actor George Henare was flying high. A member of the acclaimed Maori Theatre Trust, Henare was returning to New Zealand after touring Japan and Russia with the trust, which formed after the New Zealand Opera Company's 1965 production of Porgy and Bess.

As Henare, who grew up on the tiny East Coast settlement of Whakaangiangi Valley, sipped champagne and looked down from the window of a DC-10 at the European Alps, he decided this was the life for him.

Now his latest role has him reminiscing about those heady days, wondering where the time went and passing on "theatrical whakapapa" to a new generation whose experiences - despite the passing of time - mirror his own early ones.

Henare stars in Auckland Theatre Company's production of Awatea, 44 years after he first appeared in the premiere of the Bruce Mason play at Wellington Town Hall. Awatea was written by Mason after he was commissioned in 1966 by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation to produce a work for the Maori Theatre Trust but it took two years longer than anticipated to bring it to the stage.

When it was performed in collaboration with Downstage in 1968, Inia Te Wiata took the lead role as Werihe Paku, an old blind man revelling in the triumphs of his prodigal son Matt, who has left their East Coast village, trained as a doctor and opened a successful practice in Auckland.

Henare, then 23, had recently made the move from the chorus line of the NZ Opera Company into bigger stage roles. The part was his most substantial to date, but he admits he can't remember much about the premiere production other than Te Wiata's soaring voice.

"I was very young at the time and I didn't really pay much attention to the play or what was going on except, of course, the section I was in. All the other characters were talking about Matt, even when he wasn't around, so I figured, 'great - it's all about me'! I do remember Inia's beautiful bass voice - just a fantastic sound - and being spellbound by it."

Bruce Mason's widow, Diana, predicted Henare would one day play Werihe. Back then, the young actor had no idea where his career would take him and certainly didn't think too long about whether he'd still be performing decades into the future.

But Henare has long been a stalwart of our stage and screen productions, earning an OBE in 1988 and an Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2009.

"I'm so pleased to have the chance to be part of the production and to finally read the whole script. There is a wonderful poetry to it."

He chuckles when describing how ATC's production of Awatea started with a reading at Devonport's Victoria Theatre to test the audience response. "I was certainly old enough to play Werihe then as I'd just turned 65 and had my Super Gold Pass. We were catching the ferry and Colin [McColl, the director] said, 'use your pass; that's what it's for' and I felt too embarrassed."

As Henare and McColl were boarding the ferry to Devonport, actor Te Kohe Tuhaka was racing from Auckland International Airport to the North Shore so he could read the part of Matt. Also from the East Coast - not too far from Henare's old home - Tuhaka was part of the global tour promoting the Rugby World Cup, meaning he was spending a large chunk of his early career travelling the world and thinking, like Henare all those years before, that this was the life.

A talented rugby player, he had opted to leave the East Coast and study drama in Wellington. While at Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School, Tuhaka worked with his grandfather to translate Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida into te reo.

"He said to me, 'I don't have one of these computers so you'll have to write it all down and send it to me and I'll look it over and send it back to you' so it was quite a time-consuming process but I'm very glad I had that experience and he knew the path I was on."

Known for his roles on Shortland Street, Go Girls and Cool Kids Cooking, Tuhaka says hearing Henare's stories helped him realise he was part of a long-running and proud theatrical tradition. "I'm not sure that I think of George as a mentor, but as my friend."

The success of the Devonport reading convinced Colin McColl, who saw the 1968 production, to stage a performance of Awatea, particularly since Mason's The End of the Golden Weather and The Pohutukawa Tree have been stand-out successes for ATC in recent years.

Henare and Tuhaka say that because they both come from the East Coast they understand references more clearly and the forces which shape personalities.

Awatea also stars Geraldine Brophy, Andrew Grainger, Nancy Brunning, Carl Bland, Rob Mokaraka, Nicola Kawana, Scott Cotter and Cian Elyse White.

- NZ Herald

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