Review: Michael James Manaia, Q Theatre

By Janet McAllister

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Te Kohe Tuhaka rises to the extreme physical and mental demands of the piece. Photo / Supplied
Te Kohe Tuhaka rises to the extreme physical and mental demands of the piece. Photo / Supplied

Te Kohe Tuhaka rises to the extreme physical and mental demands of the piece. The music sets the tone for this excellent, troubling Taki Rua revival, even before all the audience has arrived. The melody is jaunty, but the lyrics jar with that bubbliness: "I don't know what to do / I feel so helpless." The sharp shadows of palisades in the gloom add to the foreboding - as does the deliberate ricketiness of Daniel Williams' intriguing set; later on, its rafts of sticks seem to threaten lone performer Te Kohe Tuhaka with impalement at every turn.

This play sits within the Maori family heavy-drama genre; however, the external crisis is wrought not by dealings with Pakeha, but with war. The title character is a Vietnam veteran in a boiler suit, weaving his own history through with certain Ngati Kahungunu myths - stories of twisted families, tricksters and Hine-nui-te-po.

His beloved brother Matty has a name that sounds like the Maori word for death: mate. But Michael James Manaia is trying very hard to pretend all is well, and sings (beautifully) to keep his demons at bay.

We're led from many childhood reminiscences (and resentments) to war's tense silence shattered with weaponry.

Directed by Nathaniel Lees, Tuhaka rises to the extreme physical and mental demands of the piece. His performance is a prestigious feat, and although a couple of Manaia's combative speeches to his father (a Maori Battalion veteran) feel "put on", it doesn't matter; Tuhaka is utterly compelling.

The theatrical elements work magnificently, cohesively together and are features in their own right: the set, Maaka McGregor's nightmare surround soundscapes and Lisa Maule's shadowy-to-pinpoint lighting.

John Broughton's 21-year-old script is slightly over-long and it journeys through well-worn war territory, but two things set it apart: the meaning Manaia gains for his own life through his people's stories (contrary to the publicity, he does not seem "at odds with his culture" but very comfortable within it), and the shattering coda at the end: war doesn't end when the boys get home. Polished, impressive and nerve-racking.

What: Michael James Manaia.
Where: Loft, Q Theatre, Sept 15.

- NZ Herald

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