TWO MAORI ACTRESSES
former artistic director and founder of the New Zealand Players Theatre Trust
Anew play lay on my desk. It was The Pohutukawa Tree by Bruce Mason, and as always with a new production, I was thinking over the difficulties that had to be solved. There was no difficulty in the play as a play: here was drama, humour, clash of character and tension. An ageing chieftainess, proud descendant of a tribe that had moved before the encroaching pakeha, strove to bring up her son and daughter as worthy of their ancestors and in the light of the Christian religion she had fervently embraced. The inevitable happens. The boy, who she wants to become a preacher, falls before cheap pakeha culture—cowboy films, comics and the welcoming pub. The lonely girl becomes the mistress of a grocer's son from the Waikato with a smooth tongue, an itch to travel and an eye for innocent beauty. When the girl becomes pregnant and the young man refuses to marry her because of what his Mum will say, the Maori boy Johnny goes berserk, feels betrayed by the pakeha religion, and wrecks the local church. He is sent to a reformatory for three months. Queenie, the girl, is packed off to her tribe on the East Coast and finds herself welcomed there, but the mother's world has collapsed around her. She throws off her assumed religion and wills herself to die. Her friendly pakeha neighbours do their best to distract her, the local clergyman pleads with her. Dressed in the cloak of her ancestors, she gives her last speech of defiance: “I choose, if it must be, the way of pride. I will go proud down to my death, for that is all I have left. I will not be humbled: I will die true to my past. No, not even for Him will I weaken; I will not carve up my life, slice by slice, from the whale. I will go to the gods of my people. That is my choice. That is my victory.”
It was obvious that such scenes demanded acting of the highest calibre. Did anybody know of any Maori actresses? The answer was always a slow smile and a shake of the head. This meant two things: the first, to be frank, could be put into these words: “Do you think you could ever get Maori girls to study a part, learn a lot of lines, and give up nearly all leisure hours for a good six or seven weeks' rehearsal?” The second was simply that they had no experience. How could they have? There were no parts written for them.
Yet I felt that the opposite could be true. Maori people often have beautiful voices, richer, fuller, with vowels better enunciated, and a tradition of eloquence on the marae, a heritage of dancing and singing from the cradle and an opportunity to rub off the usual shyness of the beginner in innumerable tribal entertainments and concert parties. So in went an advertisement, calling for “All Maori actors and actresses” and the author and I waited to see who would turn up at the audition. We were not disappointed. Three Maori actresses came to the audition, and one face stood out at once. There was nobility in the brow, candour and fire in the eye and a nose that summoned memories of the early paintings of proud and fierce chiefs. There was strength and breeding in this face. When I asked her name, I expected a deep rich voice. “Hira Tauwhare” she said, but the tone did not match the handsome figure. Otherwise everything was perfect: excellent diction, training in ballet, training for opera.
A burst of laughter came from the other end of the room. Two laughing eyes caught my own. Auditions are usually solemn affairs with everybody tense—it was like laughter in church. “Who are you?” I asked. “Mary Nimmo.” The voice was soft and low though there were traces of the
Hira Tauwhare as Aroha Mataira, Norman Florence as Johnny Mataira, Hermione Gregory as Queenie Mataira. Readers may be interested in the B.B.C. casting: Hermione Gregory has Indian blood, and Norman Florence is a South African of mixed Malayan and Spanish parentage. (B.B.C. PHOTOGRAPH).
Rehearsals soon began and one thing became quickly obvious. Whereas it took most of the cast some time to lose their self-consciousness and to assume their play personalities, both Hira and Mary were soon absorbed. They are what is called “natural actors”. Because they were “free” in their new characters, their movements were relaxed and expressive, their timing of actions was governed by the mood of the scene and they created an atmosphere of their own. There is a wedding scene under a marquee on a hot summer's day. Liquor flows, and tongues are loosened, and there is much ribald advice to the bridegroom. From early in rehearsal, Mary's performance as Queenie would differ considerably here from the spry ingenuousness of the opening scene. Her movements would grow languorous, her laughter less controlled, as she finds her senses opening with the stimulation of the pakeha wedding. Hira, as the mother, reacted in contrast: the more uncontrolled the revelry became, the greater her dignity. I can see her in performance now, her face wise with the traditions of generations, stilling the babble with her voice suddenly raised in the haunting cadences of a Maori chant.
Rehearsals were not always easy. Sometimes the subject matter of the play was embarrassing to the cast. The subject after all, was the strain and tension that arise in the effort of adjustment from one way of thinking to another, in the differences of race and colour. Mary recognised the truth of the play within herself and sought to project that. “That doesn't feel right,” she would sometimes say, and author and producer would work to find out why, and a line would be rewritten. Hira had a different problem. For a number of years, she had lived as a pakeha fighting to suppress the Maori side of her inheritance. Now she had to learn the language, awaken in herself the pride of her birthright, handle a taiaha with assurance give the victory haka “Ka whawhai, ka whawhai” so that it stirred the audience, and finally, dressed like the chieftainess of a Goldie portrait, die in the faith of her ancestors. The tribulations of this voyage of self-discovery gave her eventual performance great depth. There was something else too, which was to me both moving and stimulating, yet hard to define. Was it that the mastery of an ancient Western form of culture allowed her to release to us, to express to us some of the greatness of the old Maori—the marriage of our two cultures in a new fruitfulness?
Wellington and Auckland both greeted the play and the performances with a sense of excited discovery. The cast was delighted in the wedding scene where Aroha suddenly sings her song and the guests applaud, that the audience applauded too. As yet the rest of the country hasn't seen it, but the New Zealand Broadcasting Service is at present working on a radio version. On the other hand, an audience of millions in England saw the B.B.C. television production, in which Hira Tauwhare secured her old part against the powerful opposition of one of England's top actresses, Flora Robson. Here is the response of the critic of the London “Daily Herald”: “Those who watched the B.B.C. production of The Pohutukawa Tree” on television last night had an unforgettable experience. I mean the performance of the New Zealand actress Hira Tauwhare as an old Maori woman fighting to save her children from the ways of the white people. I have seen nothing on T.V. to match if for sheer, strange grandeur.”
Mary Nimmo's great opportunity came with “The Wide Open Cage”, by James K. Baxter, which I produced for Unity Theatre, Wellington. Here was a part rich in character, ever-changing in mood. At one moment, Norah Vane, the Maori girl she played, would be insulting a Catholic priest who sought to redeem her, in the language
of the gutter; as he departed and the tension relaxed, she would grow tender. How freely Mary performed! With the audience within three feet of her she would run her hands through the hair of the man wanting to marry her with such a feeling of intimacy that they seemed to be alone on the moon. When she confessed the murder of her child to the priest, the audience hardly dared draw their breath, such was the sense of actuality her playing conveyed. I see her now, casually flipping her shoes off in a fatigued despair, fingering the skull of an ancient Maori chief, watching with cynical amusement, cradling the head of a suffering alcoholic, and crooning to him a cradle song of her mother's. “Acted with great sympathy,” said the Evening Post, Wellington. “I have rarely been so moved,” Dominion, and The New Zealand Listener called her “passionate and tortured.” There is certain to be a wider showing of this play, either as a feature film, or in a tour.
So Hira Tauwhare and Mary Nimmo join the impressive number of Maori artists working in the theatre. As singers, actresses and entertainers, their fame is now world-wide, and only yesterday, I watched a young Maori boy dancing in a ballet troupe with all the masculine vigour for which his people are renowned. The Maori people have a great deal to give to the theatre of this country.