Theatre review: Manawa, Basement Theatre

By Paul Simei-Barton

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Jamie McCaskill and Natano Keni in Manawa. Photo / Supplied
Jamie McCaskill and Natano Keni in Manawa. Photo / Supplied

Playwright Jamie McCaskill, who impressed a couple of years ago as co-writer of He Reo Aroha, returns with a new play that convincingly establishes him as a major talent - both as a writer and performer.

Manawa delivers a refreshing blast of humour that is used to reveal some uncomfortable truths about the judicial system and contemporary Maori politics.

The down-to-earth style of comedy recalls the brilliance of Billy T. James with the same mix of hard-case deadpan, a wildly exuberant sense of the absurd and the fearlessly satirical attitude that comes from perceptive observations of real people.

The play throws together an unlikely but entirely believable odd couple as a Maori recidivist shares a prison cell with a fresh-from-the-islands Samoan who is being set up as the scapegoat for a dodgy attempt to manipulate Treaty claims on Department of Conservation land.

The show had the Basement Theatre rocking with laughter and revealed ironic shades of grey in areas more commonly delineated in the harsh black and white of identity politics.

McCaskill brings a swaggering physical presence to his portrayal of a hard-core criminal but beneath the bravado we are given glimpses of a damaged soul with a high degree of self-awareness.

His performance is neatly balanced by Natano Keni as the quietly powerful Samoan family man who presents the quizzical perspective of an outsider coming to terms with the absurdities of modern life.

An upwardly mobile Maori lawyer is played with considerable poise by Kali Kopae, though this character feels underdeveloped and her divided loyalties require a few too many convenient coincidences.

A highly entertaining and thought provoking show is rounded off with superb live music and some hilarious sound effects from Simon Donald.

- NZ Herald

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