In 1981, we were a population of slightly more than 3 million; positions on the Springbok rugby tour were hardening and the Mahon Report into the crash of Air New Zealand's Flight 901 at Erebus was released telling of an "orchestrated litany of lies".

In a country divided, a television show brought people together: for eight weeks during June and July, the adaptation of Maurice Gee's 1979 book Under the Mountain screened and many who saw it or who had read the book were never the same again.

Take Sara Brodie and Pip Hall, then unknown to one another. Not yet into their teens, Brodie and Hall, in their respective homes, were allowed to eat dinner in front of the TV on Sunday evenings because, Hall recalls, it was especially family-friendly viewing.

Captivated by the adaptation of Gee's book, it's just as well they were eating "comfort food" - soup, eggs on toast, bacon and eggs - because Under the Mountain could be terrifying. It told of shapeshifting aliens called Wilberforces lurking under Auckland volcanoes and plotting Earth's destruction; only 12-year-old twins Rachel and Theo Matheson, helped by the mysterious Mr Jones, could save us all.


Fast forward 37 years and Hall is an acclaimed playwright, Brodie an equally esteemed theatre and opera director. Those Sunday evening images and the book itself stayed with them. In fact, they played a formative role in their lives.

"I read the book and watched the TV series every Sunday night," says Brodie, who is from Christchurch. "It was like my big thing; the highlight of my week. I just remember not realising that New Zealand had volcanoes in it and then realising that I lived in this kind of mystical land where there could be lava worms under the volcanoes ... but thank God, I didn't live in Auckland because I would have been completely freaked."

Hall recalls the Wilberforce's car, a massive and dark thing, possibly a hearse.

"I remember Rachel and Theo and I remember it - the book and the TV series - and thinking, 'this is us; this is our people and our landscape', and having a real sense of ownership. That we were allowed to have action and adventure."

Both admit to having a crush on Theo.

Now, some three years after she read Under the Mountain to her own children, Billie and Tamai, Hall is bringing the story to a new generation. Auckland Theatre Company's first production for 2018, it opens this month.

It's been some two and a half years in the making, after first readings by ATC in 2015. Hall has removed a lot of expository material from early script drafts, re-arranged the order of some scenes so it won't frighten younger audience members too early, beefed up the role of two Swedish twins and dealt the with tricky issue of why Rachel and Theo don't have cellphones.

"If we gave Rachel and Theo a phone, it would mean when they got into trouble, we'd be like, 'why aren't they ringing the police or Aunty Noeline?' So, we decided to stay away from that. Ricky, their older cousin, has a phone - the latest one - and they spend quite a bit of time admiring his phone and having fun with it. There's a line that explains - and it's what we did with our kids - why they don't have a phone: they couldn't have one until they went to high school and Theo and Rachel aren't at high school."

Brodie has also made some creative choices, mainly around the Wilberforces. Rather than having actors who morph into slug-like creatures in lava-worm suits, she's using dancers Melana Khabazi, Daniel Cooper, Jesse Wikiriwhi, Joe Witkowski and Simon Mead to portray the aliens. She'd called in a dancer to help out in the first workshops, saying if you were making a play that starred shape-shifting aliens, you should work with someone "incredibly physically articulate".

"And as soon as we put the dancer at the time into the mix, it was just like, 'oh yes! We've found a way through this shape shifting!'"

Dancers Jesse Wikiriwhi, Daniel Cooper and Melana Khabazi are set to scare the pants off a new generation as the shape-shifting aliens the Wilberforces.
Dancers Jesse Wikiriwhi, Daniel Cooper and Melana Khabazi are set to scare the pants off a new generation as the shape-shifting aliens the Wilberforces.

It was a decision Hall wholeheartedly agreed with, saying she wanted to make her version of Under the Mountain as theatrical as possible to differentiate it from anything that might be seen on TV or film. That said, there's a strong audio-visual component, with Brodie describing sound as a huge element in the production.

"Think of a classic thriller, if you take away the soundtrack then the guts of it has gone so sound will kind of add to that magic and lighting, adds atmosphere with the integration of the video, although it's not going to be the AV show."

Daniel Cooper has possibly one of the toughest jobs in the production; he's playing the iconic Mr Wilberforce. Raised in Rotorua, he watched Under the Mountain when it was repeated on after-school television and admits while it scared him, he couldn't take his eyes off the screen.

"My first knowledge of the Auckland landscape came via Under the Mountain with the images of Rangitoto and all the different maunga around the city," says Cooper, who appeared in ATC's Billy Elliot. "When I first came up to Auckland when I was a bit older, all the recognition of the landmarks came from having watched the TV series."

Cooper says he doesn't know why but he enjoys playing darker, more sinister characters possibly because, as a dancer, he likes the physical standpoint - the weight - of those roles.

Richie Grzyb and Katrina George play Theo and Rachel; Brodie was adamant she wanted actors who were believable, but not obvious, as 12 year old twins. Finding the right pairings - and Brodie needed two sets of twins - was challenging but ATC flew her two Wellington "twins", one from each set, to Auckland for more extensive auditions.

Grzyb was hired just hours after Brodie had seen him play Theo to George's Rachel. He acknowledges there's a responsibility on his shoulders in portraying a character who was once so well-known.

"I didn't want to watch too much of the TV show or the movie too much because I wanted to create my own version of Theo," he says. "Pip's done such an awesome job with writing this script and there's parts of it that have fleshed out even the book. For me, the hardest part? Trusting in myself that I can be that 12-year-old without trying to force it. That's quite a scary thing because I'm 24…"

He's too young to remember the TV series or having the book as required reading at school, but knows exactly what it meant to New Zealanders of a certain age. "What's really cool about this role is that when I went home to Hawke's Bay over summer and I was telling all my family - Mum's one of seven so there's a whole bunch of uncles and aunties and cousins - and I was telling them about this role and all of the uncles were way more excited than any of the kids! All of the uncles were like, 'you're Theo Matheson!'"

Expect, then, a large contingent of visitors from Hawke's Bay.


What: Under the Mountain
Where and when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, February 7-21. Recommended for 8 years and older