Something bold, something new

By Dionne Christian

Matu Ngaropo plays Tawera in Te Awarua which evokes the legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai in a World War I setting. Photo / Supplied
Matu Ngaropo plays Tawera in Te Awarua which evokes the legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai in a World War I setting. Photo / Supplied

If Matariki is to be more than a token addition to the calendar of contemporary festivals, then events and activities must embrace te reo (language) and tikanga (protocol), according to theatre practitioner Tainui Tukiwaho.

While Matariki, the Maori New Year, has always been important in the Maori calendar it has been recognised by wider society only in the past few years.

This year, it includes a celebration of Maori play writing which unites Tukiwaho's SmackBang Theatre Company with Hekama Productions on a theatre project which "walks the talk" through its strong use of te reo and tikanga.

The Tuakana-Teina Project has brought together two Maori writers in a mentoring relationship. Award-winning writer Albert Belz has been assisting and guiding emerging playwright Michael Rewiri-Thorsen.

Tukiwaho says the tuakana-teina relationship is an integral part of traditional Maori society, providing an older or more experienced tuakana to help and guide a younger or less experienced teina.

The results of Belz and Rewiri-Thorsen's collaboration can be seen next week with the double-bill presentation of one new and one classic play: Rewiri-Thorsen's debut Strong Hands and Belz's Te Awarua.

Rewiri-Thorsen says it's been "huge" to have Belz's support and guidance while he's been working on his first play - or at least the first one that's longer than 15 minutes.

"I guess it's only just hitting home that I've written a play and it's about to be performed. I'm excited, rather than nervous, because even though it's my work and my words, it's not me on stage having to perform it. I can sit back and take it all in, look at what needs to be done next."

He describes Strong Hands as a work in development but hopes it will have a life beyond the project, perhaps touring nationally and, one day, even internationally.

He says Strong Hands, directed by James Beaumont, is about the changing relationship between two brothers and the ways and means through which men do - and don't - communicate. "So the themes are universal, recognisable to people of any culture."

Te Awarua, directed by Tukiwaho, draws its inspiration from World War I. Belz wrote the play in 2004 while completing a writing residency in France. Set just outside the French town of Le Quesnoy, which New Zealand troops liberated towards the end of World War I, the action takes place in a trench in the midst of battle.

Tawera, a Maori Pioneer Battalion soldier, is preparing to "go over the top" when he is unexpectedly joined by a French woman searching for her lover, a Pakeha soldier and a Frenchman. Against the backdrop of World War I, Belz wove the legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai.

Te Awarua was performed in Le Quesnoy as part of the Oak and Fern Year festival in 2004, a year-long celebration of the relationship between the township and New Zealand. This is its first public performance in New Zealand, aside from a show late last year for the Cambridge/Le Quesnoy Friendship Association in the Waikato.

Actor Gerald Urquhart plays the Pakeha soldier. Best known as Shortland Street's Luke Durville, Urquhart spent a large chunk of last year studying te reo on a course set up by SmackBang to teach actors the language.

Tukiwaho says the Cambridge performance gave SmackBang a chance to test audience reactions to the extensive use of Maori, along with English and French, in the play. He says he was "pleasantly surprised" that it was so well received.

"People will go to see a film with French subtitles and not blink, but there has been no research done about how they react to hearing te reo on stage."

Meanwhile, Aucklanders get a rare chance to see Belz's play Awhi Tapu when Wellington theatre company Taki Rua brings it to Tapac later this month.

Written in 2003, Awhi Tapu was Belz's second play and won him an award from the Human Rights Commission for its positive contribution toward harmonious race relations. A subsequent North Island tour sold out.

He says it is a story of reconciliation and friendship set in a forgotten forestry town at the foot of the Urewera Ranges where Wendyl, Sonny, Casper and Girl Girl watch as their friends and neighbours slowly abandon the town for greener pastures.

This new production features Matariki Whatarau, James Tito, Kura Forrester and Tola Newbery.


Performance

What: Tuakana-Teina Project: Strong Hands and Te Awarua

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, June 15-17

What: Awhi Tapu

Where and when: Tapac, Western Springs, June 22-July 2

- NZ Herald

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