NZ Arts Festival: Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland review

By Mark Amery

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Scene from 'Mark Twain and Me In Maoriland', which is playing at the NZ International Arts Festival. Photo / Supplied
Scene from 'Mark Twain and Me In Maoriland', which is playing at the NZ International Arts Festival. Photo / Supplied

There are two recognised writers at the heart of this work, both well known for their gift of the gab and mining rich veins of cultural life with quick wit and intelligence. Yet both Mark Twain and playwright David Geary feel strangely absent from the centre of this production.

A surreal twisting of fact and fiction, Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland was inspired by a true life event. In Whanganui on a lecture tour of New Zealand in 1895 Twain upset some of the locals by suggesting that the monument at Moutoa Gardens honouring Maori loyal to the British should be blown up for encouraging them to be disloyal to their own race.

Geary uses this as a launching point to explore a powerful theme - loyalty, across the complex currents of colonial and cultural relations through which the river flows. Maori fight Maori, French Catholics stir the pot, and Pakeha try to protect a growing town that their pompous mayor (with shades of the present) boasts as having more pavement than Auckland.

The central character is not outsider Twain but a Maori caught midstream. Ra, played strongly by Maaka Pohatu, is a kupapa Maori (loyal to the crown). He threatens Twain but increasingly finds himself in the crossfire, as he seeks atonement but also tries to reconcile his heart.

What is problematic and rather bold in this work is that Twain is violently sidelined. His situation is given small attention, he is interrupted as soon as he starts to deliver lectures, and shifted around the stage like a talking mannequin in an ill-fitting suit. It's hard to know whether Stephen Papps as Twain (with an equally ill-fitting American accent) is simply uncomfortable in the role or being directed to perform this way.

Under acclaimed Australian director John Bolton, showing all the flair for physical theatre he is known for, it is Twain's statue which is continually toppled - for reason only perhaps that he represents yet another outsider's view of Maori.

As for Geary, the production bears all of the hallmarks of a piece of devised physical theatre rather than that by a scriptwriter. I should declare an interest here that may strongly colour my view: I read an earlier draft of the script created before Boltons' arrival, which this work bears only passing resemblance to. I miss its streams of rich wordplay and structure here.

This wouldn't be a criticism if what replaced it felt like it had a coherent framework. It also seems caught midstream, lacking either a strong individual or collective vision. Put simply, it feels confused, and I was left wondering whether it was a case of too many cooks in the creative kitchen.

At the work's heart is the struggle over who gets to tell a story - an echo of the adage "history is written by the winner" and Twain's wish to see statues blown up. And in this respect the work's lack of a unifying perspective feels quite honest. A physicalised struggle to be the storyteller is what is most fascinating about this production. Bolton constantly shifts theatrical styles and creates choral disruptions to individual's attempts to stand and deliver their positions, as if we're right in the heat of an argument about what is the truth today.

One clear inspiration for this disruptive style is turn-of-the-century vaudeville, with its raw cutting humour and regular breaks into song and dance. And there are some bravado comic performances, particularly from Aaron Cortesi and Allan Henry as a pair of Catholic and Anglican priest buffoons. Yet even the idea put forward at one point that the storytelling structure is a variety show at the Wanganui Oddfellows Hall is, frustratingly, rejected. The company seems determined that this world, however surreal, will not be housed within any singular framework.

Other Maori and Pakeha traditional storytelling structures are announced and then subverted. You're not welcomed or introduced into the stories. Rather you are alienated from them. You are thrown into the middle of waiata, or narration is given belatedly. I'm not sure this pays much respect to anyone, and keeps incapacitating the warmth, humour and hope the story and characters promise.

It looks through a fractured lens at a rich historical moment in time from neither a Maori, Pakeha or outsider's perspective, and with little heed to introducing us properly to everything from Twain's writing to the Battle of Moutoa (imaginatively restaged through piles of clothes on the ground). Who the 'me' in the title is becomes a question mark.

Given how silenced a Maori perspective on Whanganui's history has been, it felt odd that the director and not more of the actors were Maori. Likewise I would love to hear a Maori critic's perspective on this work.

By the end the stage has been littered with great ideas (I particularly liked the use of water filled plastic containers to give us the movement of people on water). The talented cast show tremendous commitment to the work's schizophrenic flips, but you get the sense that together with Bolton, and the two designers there are a few too many other outside interpreters, coming back from a trip up the Whanganui with a scrapbook of ideas. The cast tend to look lost on the large white envelope of a set - upon which Martyn Roberts at least does play out a stunning lighting design.

"Do you know who I am?" Twain asks Ra at one point. "You're an old man lost up a river," replies Ra tellingly. With that I could empathise.

*Mark Twain & Me in Maoriland runs from March 13-21 at Expressions/Genesis Energy Theatre and on March 9 at Te Papa / Soundings Theatre, as part of the NZ International Arts Festival in Wellington.

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