Paolo Rotondo is a thief.

The actor, film and theatre writer/director readily admits it; he almost seems proud of it.

"I go back in time and steal other people's stories and I don't have any qualms about it," he declares.

"I'm not an historian; I am a writer of fiction and I try to capture the essence of a time, to look through a lens and find the authentic feelings rather than the literal facts."

Advertisement

This pillager of the past would have fitted right in during the early 1800s in Kororareka (Russell, in the Bay of Islands). New Zealand's first capital city, it was a base for European traders, whalers and missionaries with the latter fighting a losing battle for the souls of lawless residents and visitors.

Notorious for drinking, fighting and whoring, the township was known as the "hell-hole of the Pacific" and, for Rotondo, the perfect place to set his latest play, Kororareka - The Ballard of Maggie Flynn.

The former Shortland Street star says the play is a celebration of the bolshie and bloody-minded "warrior women" who lie buried in New Zealand's past and a homage to the strength, power, toughness, resilience and wit that exists in the character of NZ women.

"I studied history and, showing my unconscious bias, it never occurred to me, as a man, to ask about women and their experiences and perceptions of our past," Rotondo admits.

"They must have been incredible women to survive those times but we just don't know much about them because history was, for too long, nearly always all about the men.

"I do not believe that Kate Sheppard, Helen Clark, Lorde or Eleanor Catton, are exceptions to the rule, in fact they are a product of a long line of powerful women."

Paolo Rotondo.
Paolo Rotondo.

In Strange Resting Places (co-written with Rob Mokaraka), Rotondo explored his Kiwi-Italian whakapapa; for Kororareka, he looked to his maternal Irish ancestors, where the surname Flynn crops up.

He combined this family history with that of women such as Charlotte Badger, a convict from New South Wales who was the first Pakeha woman to live here; Ann Morley, who survived the massacre and burning of the ship the Boyd and Betty Guard, reputedly the first Pakeha woman to live in the South Island.

The main character is the fictional Maggie Flynn, a fiery Irish woman who leaves England a convict and arrives in Kororareka as the captain of a whaling ship. Maggie's fortune twists and turns, from trophy slave to the wife of a great chief, to madam of the notorious King Edward Hotel.

Rotondo took the script to Red Leap Theatre and its artistic director, Julie Nolan, because they've worked together before and he likes the company's style: original work, physical theatre and imagery that takes audiences from the literal to the metaphorical.

Nolan says Red Leap has never worked with a script before. The Arrival, its best known production, was adapted from Shaun Tan's award-winning graphic novel; other productions start as stories shared among the cast or questions they want answered.

She says friends and colleagues questioned whether she'd be able to make a show like Kororareka and that was like a red rag to a bull.

"I like a challenge and when people say, 'I don't know whether you can to do that,' it makes me go, 'oh, yes I can'. Paolo brought me a mammoth script; everyone had a monologue so we both knew there would be some negotiating in order for us to get more movement and fewer words into it."

Two years into development, Nolan told Rotondo she wanted an all-female cast. She says it was most definitely a political act, another way to highlight female voices missing from the historical record. Rotondo admits he was surprised.

"I was like, 'what about all my men characters?' I didn't want them to become caricatures or for their portrayal to take people out of the story then I thought, 'what am I worried about? Shakespeare used all-male casts all the time.'"

They've taken care with aspects of the story, working with cultural adviser Amber Curreen.

"We are dealing with some sensitive stuff," says Nolan. "We wanted to ensure we had it right and that this story is as inclusive as possible."

She says Kororareka is about women who were too wild to be captured by official history books. The cast, Miriama McDowell, Alison Bruce, Victoria Abbott, Awhina Ashby and Katrina George, were asked to delve into their own histories.

A startling revelation awaited Abbott, who plays the young Maggie, when she discovered she may well be related to Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March - a woman who surely deserves her own action film.

Known in folklore as Black Agnes, in 1338 she heroically defended her clan castle, Dunbar, in East Lothian, Scotland against a siege by William Montagu, 1st Earl of Salisbury. After five months, he was forced to admit defeat and lift the siege.

Abbott says she's been told most of the Dunbar line is probably related to Black Agnes, named so because of her dark hair and eyes, but to be linked to such a "kick-arse woman" is a connection she's proud of.

Rotondo is now in talks for a film project, which may see the more colourful ghosts from our past rise.

"I reckon New Zealand history could be the next great frontier in story-telling, because so far we've only scratched the surface.

What: Kororareka - The Ballad of Maggie Flynn
Where and when: Q Theatre, until June 17; Russell Town Hall,
June 19; Kerikeri, The Turner Centre, June 21 and Oneonesix, Whangarei June 23-24.