Only three productions have moved me to manly tears. Among them were a joyfully artful, all-women performance of The Taming Of The Shrew at London's Globe Theatre and the Gisborne Choral Society's performance of Karl Jenkins' modern mass to peace, The Armed Man.
The third was the Nancy Brunning-directed production of Witi's Wāhine, which had its world premiere at Gisborne's Lawson Field Theatre as part of the 16-day, inaugural Tairāwhiti Arts Festival. Witi's Wāhine is a collection of dramatised excerpts based on female characters from acclaimed New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera's short stories and novels.
Real-life stories told by Ihimaera's sisters to Brunning and actors Mere Boynton, Roimata Fox, Ani-Piki Tuari and Ngapaki Moetara are woven through the story. Like Ihimaera's fictions, these anecdotes are threaded with laugh-out-loud humour, pathos and fond remembrance.
The production was all about story-telling. From the beginning, the quartet brought smiles and aroha to the stage with a narrative-driven enactment of The Last Spear. The poetic, prelapsarian story ended with a song in te reo - many in the audience joined in - and jokey chat, also in te reo. And so the emotional tone of the production, and a familial connection between stage and audience, was set.
At this point, though, the production risked faltering. The actors prefaced the main body of the play with brief talk about male dominance in theatre and film, in which the protagonists are mostly men. The women cited the novel The Whale Rider in which changes made for the movie version diminished female character's roles. Now, though, they said, it time for mana wāhine to re-assert itself.
With stake-in-the-ground gender politics established the play continued with what was essentially a celebration of mana wāhine. Fox brought a strong on-screen presence to the film Pa Boys but here, she and Moetara were eclipsed by Boynton's powerful stage presence. The actor-singer's characterisation ranged from poignant to ferocious with flashes of the operatic. Tuari's cheekiness, extroversion and energy maintained the vital, colourful connection with the audience.
That's not to diminish Fox and Moetara's parts; from comic Waituhi hockey girl to rebel warrior, Fox was strong in her characterisation while Moetara brought sensitivity and grace to her roles.
Ihimaera often treads a fine line between sensitivity and sentimentality in his fiction and this quality was brought out in an excerpt from I've Been Thinking About You, Sister.
In the story, Aroha takes white stones and a vial of water from a local river to Tunisia where her beloved brother, and Maori Battalion serviceman, Rangiora is buried in a war cemetery. Boynton's Aroha felt the loss keenly and was accompanied by her ageing, sometimes garrulous, father, played by Tuari.
That several in the audience laughed to see Tuari in such a role underlined the familial connection between the actors and theatre-goers. Tuari's out-of-character characterisation was joyful art. Cast as a helpful, dapper and sensitive Frenchman with dancing feet, Moetara brought a comic delicacy to the story.
Local references in much of the play resonated with the Gisborne audience; many of the more uncomfortable historical stories are ours, too. Humour, audience interaction and aroha underpinned the performance but, in an almost underworldly performance, Boyton, as The Matriarch's Artemis Riripeta Mahana, took us to a darker place.
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The audience saw that strength of character again in an excerpt about the largely untold story of wāhine toa's role in events of 1868, which included the siege (and massacre) at Ngatapa, Te Kooti's escape from exile and the ensuing utu at Matawhero. It was played out in a powerful mix of melodrama, drama and, ultimately, tragedy.
A striking feature of the production was the seamless segue from punch-to-the-face scenes, such as this, into a more light-hearted story or those of pathos and strength of will. Fox's most triumphant role in the play was in a simple, bitter-sweet story in which she played lively, loving mokopuna to her grandmother whose Alzheimer's doesn't get in the way of playing tricks on her complicit granddaughter.
The standing ovation was inevitable but heartfelt and deserved. True to the nature of production was the Paikea waiata cast and audience sung to each other. "You'll remember this night," Tairāwhiti Arts Festival director Tama Waipara told the audience afterwards - and that we will.