Theatre review: Paniora!, Maidment Theatre

By Janet McAllister

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The dancing in Paniora! is vibrant throughout. Photo / Stephen A'Court Photography
The dancing in Paniora! is vibrant throughout. Photo / Stephen A'Court Photography

As the exclamation promises, Paniora! is a spectacle: full of dance, dust and colour. Briar Grace-Smith's anticipated new play puts an often humorous, fairytale twist on the Maori family melodrama genre.

Auckland Theatre Company director Colin McColl and Okareka Dance Company choreographer Taane Mete have chosen an excellent beginning: Taiaroa Royal dancing in the dark, poised on the edge of a precipice, moving in flamenco and Maori motifs.

He's joined by Nancy Brunning as the "difficult" abuela, the grandmother matriarch of the Spanish-Maori Paniora clan, and their short, controlled scene contrasts nicely with what we next see: a brightly lit, jostling, bristling crowd jockeying for power in an unacknowledged game of family musical chairs.

The script is lyrical although there are large amounts of exposition, a superfluous stampede and an abrupt ending, as if we're seeing an abridged version of a larger work. Grace-Smith is not above using Whale Rider cliches like the wise girl-child, but she also pokes fun at our eager embrace of such myths: the Spanish light-relief (Barnie Duncan) apes the flamenco father in Strictly Ballroom in a dancing display and, amusingly, doesn't quite pull it off.

The play is open to interpretation: can the wrong kind of attention paid to ancestors, both living and dead, jeopardise rather than guarantee a family's future? The family have mythologised their Spanish past for so long with so little cultural contact that it has become fantastical; there are parallels here with the cultural dislocation felt by many people vis-a-vis their own Maori heritage.

In mostly unsympathetic roles, the cast are excellent, and the fantastic dancers are vital: a rugby scrum becomes a bull; flamenco flourishes are matched with pukana eyes.

Sean Coyle's set is superb. The colour design is fabulous: a hungover morning is backlit in headache-inducing yellow by Jane Hakaraia, contrasting with Hera Dunleavy's red trousers and spotted red cup. Nic Smillie's costumes are stunning, particularly Miriama Smith's dresses, immediately marking her character as Trouble. Ambitious and stylish.

Theatre

What: Paniora!
Where: Maidment Theatre until April 12

- NZ Herald

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