Review: Susan Budd
The strength of Briar Grace-Smith's writing lies in its unique blend of the domestic comedy of human relationships and the framework in which they are held. The mundane and the spiritual coexist in powerful but uneasy tension.
Haruru Mai's tale of the love between a tortured young woman, Paloma, and Silas, a hollow man old enough to be her father, is set in the small Northland town of Pukerata.
Their lives are shadowed by events in the Italian theatre of the Second World War, where Paloma's father, Moana, died. Flashbacks reveal the dark secret of his death in which Silas was complicit.
Symbols of war, beautifully realised in John Verryt's brooding set, pervade the domestic setting of Silas' house.
Paloma, known as Mars and Tu, the Maori god of war, is embodied in Moana's shade that looms over the stage.
Humour and humanity lie in Pearl, a guardian of cultural taonga, as opposed to Silas, a pakeha/Maori who, in losing his Maori identity, is half a man.
For Silas, Taku, the young man he employs as a gardener, is a surrogate Moana, but he proves too frail to carry the warrior's spirit.
The play's central problem is that the ideas overwhelm the characters. Paloma's motivations are inexplicable. Her love for Silas is told but not shown.
It is impossible to understand why she should deliberately taunt Taku into violence, then tear her clothes and cry rape to precipitate further bloodshed. Her only function is to act as a vessel for retribution, exacting Tu's vengeance on Silas.
All the characters are similarly depersonalised in Simon Prast's production, which in its efforts to present a tragic epic moves with awful, slow solemnity through a ponderous first act unleavened by any change of pace or lightness of touch.
Because the characters exist only as spectres, the explosive events of the short second act comprise sound and fury with little emotional resonance. The closing Maori Battalion haka seems imposed.
The characters most firmly at one with Maoritanga succeed best: Tanea Heke in a gutsy performance and Antonio Te Maioha as Moana. Taika Cohen's mercurial Taku needs more weight; Nancy Brunning's Paloma is sullen rather than tragic and there is no sexual tension in her relationship with George Henare's Silas.
A good play lies buried beneath the portentous staging, but it is still struggling to find life.