Participation in 20th century international conflicts is a recurring topic in Maori theatre. In the past two years Auckland has seen at least five Maori productions (written over the past two decades) set during World War I, World War II (particularly the Maori Battalion in Italy) and Vietnam.
The primary focus is not usually the fighting itself, but war's impact on romance, love and whanau life.
The theme of ocean-spanning ties (formed within living memory) is in contrast to arguably the most significant theme in Maori theatre: ancient ties to the whenua, the land.
These plays both critique and uphold the cultural touchstone of the Maori warrior. Tu is no exception. Adapted from the Patricia Grace novel, it shows the insidious effects of war on four generations. Writer and director Hone Kouka plunges immediately into melodrama with a red-lit haka targeted at our protagonist Tuhoe, called Tu for short, like Tumatauenga, the Maori god of war. But 30 years after he fought in World War II, Tu is no godly figure (although he is surprisingly youthful, as played by Tammy Davis); he's a tragic, broken man.
The reasons why are revealed through well-choreographed reminiscences and hauntings across Mark McEntyre's traverse stage. Particularly effective in this good-looking Tawata production is kapa haka movement morphing into synchronised animal-gutting at the freezing works.
The romance between Jarod Rawiri's anxious Philomel and his compelling girl Jess (Aroha White) is nicely set up.
With fewer war scenes than its source material, Tu is a family saga covering a colossal number of plot points and characters, with little conceptual framing. Kouka has changed the name of Tu's big brother from Pita to Philomel, but this is not a sly reference to the brutalised and silenced younger sister of Greek mythology; Kouka is merely naming the character after his own brother.
Yet ultimately the play is less about brotherhood than about sons' fears of upsetting a mother fearful for them. An emotional display of charged family dynamics.
When: Until July 27
Where: Q Theatre, Queen St.