BERNADETTE RAE meets the stars of a New Zealand play who call on boyhood memories for their roles.

Piripi, the most Maori Maori in new playwright Albert Belz' new play Te Maunga, sums up the difficulty of living in two cultures and embodying what almost amounts to a third.

"We grew up with three legs," he says. "Three worlds, bro. Our Maori leg, our Pakeha leg, and our something-in-between leg, hanging there impotently."

It's a meaty metaphor and representative of Belz' deft way with the cadences of New Zealand English.


But Te Maunga promises to be more than just slick talk with an ethnic rhythm.

Blair Strang, hot off the box's Shortland Street, and "feeling really liberated," who plays the less-Maori brother John to Taungaroa Emile's staunch Piripi, says he was jumping out of his skin just quarter of the way through his first reading of the script.

"It's just a great story," he says. "It is a real New Zealand story, about New Zealand stuff, but at another level it is a universal sort of story, too."

The main action takes place during a long car journey. Two brothers, Piripi and John, long-estranged and inhabiting two different worlds, travel to their father's funeral. John's English girlfriend Liz is with them, and so is the ghost of the boys' mother.

But that is interwoven with issues of biculturalism, family dysfunction, some serious concepts of Maoritanga and the magical stories of a Captain Tumeke, who blends the heroism of Maori myth with the digitalised glory of Star Wars.

"It is just the sort of story New Zealand audiences have been hanging out for," reckons an enthusiastic Strang. "And it's not too arty-farty, not too surreal."

The keepers of the purse at Creative New Zealand obviously agreed, and Unreal Theatre Company received the second-largest grant made in last year's final funding round. Nathaniel Lees directs the production.

After six years in the confines of television, Strang says in Te Maunga he has rediscovered his reasons for being an actor.

The former head boy at St Kentigern College, who deserted law school after three years to take to the stage, is revelling in the chance to work in depth with his character.

"On Shortland Street you would have your lines ready, run a couple of rehearsals on set, and that was it. If you can pull off something like Shortland Street, you can pull off anything. But in comparison to this, it's just not fulfilling. This is hard. You have to really give of yourself and make yourself vulnerable. But it is worth it."

Strang, who has a Pakeha father and a Maori mother, identified strongly with his character John, right from the beginning. His mother pushed him firmly into the Pakeha world because she saw that was the best road to success. Working on Te Maunga has awakened Strang's interest in Maori culture.

Until now his knowledge of things Maori has been "mostly instinctive," he says. Searching into himself for the play "uncovered a side that I didn't think existed." The experience has convinced him to take up some serious study of Te Reo.

For Taungaroa Emile, opening night at the Herald Theatre on Wednesday will be his first experience of performing live.

Emile hit the big screen in Once Were Warriors and the sequel What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? Since then he has been in the feature film Flight of the Albatross and the television series Hercules and Young Hercules. For several months he played alongside Strang on the Street.

He was asked to audition for a stage role in Wellington when he was 17, but felt too daunted and not ready to face up to a live audience.

But he was so impressed by his first reading of the Te Maunga script that he "begged Albie to give me the part, stage show [experience] or no.

He expected hard work. "On a film you do a scene, it's wrapped and you go home and forget about it. This is not like that. I am working on this play even after hours. It's full on. It's great."

An important part of Te Maunga's structure is the moving back in time to when Piripi is 7 years old, John a couple of years older.

Playing a child is no special problem for the part-Maori and part-Rarotongan 23-year-old. "I think I am about 12 years old really, only taller."

And he has a private tutor at home in his 6-year-old son, also Taungaroa.

"I have been reading to Taungaroa a lot over the past few weeks and watching him," he says."He watches me practising and tells me if I am doing it wrong."

* Te Maunga opens at the Herald Theatre on Wednesday.