Maori Theatre Trust
He Mana Toa
News of the Maori Theatre Trust's excellent production of James Ritchie's He Mana Toa spread through Wellington so fast that by the end of the week-long season—part of Unity Theatre's jubilee festival last March—long queues waited outside the small theatre and the audience filled every available space.
Originally written as a ‘sound and light’ production for the 1965 Hamilton Arts Festival, with tape-recorded sound and mimed action. He Mana Toa was this time given Richard Campion's expert direction, Leigh Brewer's striking and sensitive choreography, a full and vocal cast, and electronic music effects by Douglas Lilburn.
The play is in three parts. In a prologue,
small groups of present-day Maoris in a variety of situations—at work, relaxing, at a party—sense ‘something’ from the past which has an effect on their actions, feelings, and attitudes, and this is summed up in a sweet and simple song …
‘Yesterday I knew my name and my beginning …
… I look down to the valley
Once my ancestors were owning
And I search around tall buildings …
… I search those city faces
Either love or hate they're showing …
… So I look up to the morning
Where the first daylight is shining …
…And the voices all around me
Seem to know what I am knowing
And they can give me nothing but myself.’
The main part of the play is the enactment of the separation of Rangi and Papa, Sky Father and Earth Mother, dramatically and beautifully accomplished. As the story unfolds, the children one by one detach themselves from the muddled heap of offspring, and explain their characters, the reasons why their parents must be separated, their plans for the future and their relationships to one another. Modern expressions—even some highly topical quips, and sometimes very funny demonstrations of their talents, interpolated into the deities' poetic prose relieve the dramatic tension, until with the youngest son Ruamoko's anguished but futile objection to his brothers' plan, and his determination to make his presence felt after the plan is fulfilled, the drama is heightened once more and the portrayal of the separation is completed.
The story of Te Rauparaha which occupies the second half is so different from the dramatic legend that at first it seems tame by comparison. The terrible deeds credited to Te Rauparaha are only briefly mentioned, and he is shown as a young warrior, a great leader surveying the land he has conquered and finally as peacemaker and friend of the missionaries. Highlights are two deathbed scenes and the episode of the kumara pit.
It seems that in this second half James Ritchie is trying to show that at various times in his life, Te Rauparaha is exemplifying in turn the chief attribute of each of the deities, from Tane to Ruamoko.
After the death of Te Rauparaha, his son Tamihana is shown as the wavering victim of two cultures, being at the same time a laughing stock to his people and the prime example of a ‘failure’ to the missionaries. Tamihana is an almost farcical character, and the play seems to be drifting towards banality. However, in the last glimpses of Tamihana, as the ‘spirit of the warriors’ begins to develop in him and he shows the glimmerings of leadership, and in the singing again of the song from the prologue, the atmosphere of the mysterius knowledge of ‘something’ within the young Maori is regained.
So much for the play, which in spite of some weak links and poor lines has moments of great insight and wonderful drama.
But what of the players?
The most exciting thing about the whole production was the realisation that here was an immensely talented group of young New Zealanders showing the theatre-going public the potential in two fields. First, the rich cultural heritage of our country, a virtually untapped reservoir of traditional stories awaiting dramatic presentation. Second, the people best qualified to present these stories. I say this unhesitatingly. It was a pleasure to hear from almost every member of the cast such pure, unaffected English, spoken with unforced power or warmth as the occasion demanded; to see such natural dignity and graceful movement; and to recognise in these young players an added sense of pride that they were portraying their own heritage, part of themselves.
Outstanding among the performers were Don Solomon and Karin Jurgensen (making her first stage appearance) as Sky Father and Earth Mother, George Henare as Tangaroa, Chief Elkington as Ruamoko, and Joshua Gardiner as Te Rauparaha. Other members of the cast were Tom Ihaka, Ross Waters, Ron Lynn, Auntie Millie Clark, Tawhai Richmond, Sue Hansen, Ngarangi Mill and Donas Nathan. Production, designing and lighting effects were the work of Don Selwyn, Peter Keiha and Lionel Willison, and Koro Dewes narrated legend and story.
The Maori Theatre Trust has so far had no success with its application for financial backing for a planned major production, and has been forced to ‘start small’. Although perhaps frustrating to the keen founders of the trust, this disappointment has possibly made them more than ever determined to suceed. He Mana Toa, ‘Spirit of the Warriors’, was thus
a most appropriate choice. With its success, the Trust is paving the way to greater things and is proving itself worthy of support.
The Golden Lover
The Maori Theatre Trust is no longer a dream on the part of a few enthusiasts. Within the space of a month they have made an impressive debut with two completely different types of play which have caused Wellington's theatrical buffs to sit up and take notice. First came He Mana Toa—a high drama and a serious probing of the Maori's attitudes to his traditional beginnings and to the Pakeha influence on his ancient beliefs and culture. Now, presented by ‘Downstage’ with the full co-operation of the Trust, we have The Golden Lover—high comedy and great good fun. Like its predecessor it received not inconsiderable acclaim from local critics. The Evening Post called it ‘excellent fare’. The Dominion talked about ‘comedy delightfully played by a competent cast… ‘Of the players, the critic said ‘… their sense of timing is all a director could wish for’.
As with He Mana Toa, The Golden Lover provides a window on Maoridom, but this time it highlights the Maoris' penchant for making fun of themselves. It abounds in the type of humour in which Maoris indulge amongst themselves when there are no Pakeha present. In this the playwright, Douglas Stewart, has not only succeeded in painting a convincing picture of pre-European pa life, but he has made his characters completely believable as Maoris, which is no small feat for a Pakeha. There are plenty of the standard gimmicks of Maori humour, of course—the fat one of the ‘snoring stomach’, the shrewish wife who upstages her husband, the clucking old kuias—but this is also a play full of genuinely funny lines and situations.
Bob Hirini was superb as the fat idle Ruarangi and his performance was ably complimented by Auckland Pakeha Shirley Duke as his flirtatious wife, Tawhai. Don Selwyn gave a strong and dignified portrayal of Tawhai's father whilst Harata Solomon and Thelma Grabmaier entertained as Tawhai's mother and a gossipy kuia respectively. Kuki Kaa is almost type-cast in local plays now as a tohunga, and he brought an appropriately sinister air to the role of the Tohunga ta makutu, Te Kawau. Tim te Heuheu as the bashful young brave in fruitless search for casual copulation was also convincing. Regrettably the one weak spot in an otherwise consistently strong cast was Ray Henwood as Whana the golden lover. Mr Henwood is no mean actor, but unfortunately he was miscast, and just did not look or sound the part as the noble chief of the patupaiarehe.
Richard Campion's direction was sure and thorough and throughout the play Douglas Lilburn's electronic music and sound effects did much to heighten an atmosphere already effectively created by good lighting and a first-class set. In this respect Lover was streets ahead of He Mana Toa and showed that a small stage need be no bar to effective staging.
What now of the future? I may be a sentimentalist but it gave me a terrific thrill to see these (mostly) young Maoris standing straight and confidently and beautifully articulating the sounds of our common language (Don Selwyn was particularly good in this respect). By teaching young Maoris to move, speak and act confidently the Trust should prove a valuable training ground for members of conventional Maori cultural groups and for this reason it deserves the full support of such clubs. Both the plays have opened exciting vistas for Maori theatre. Unfortunately both these Wellington offerings were to restricted audiences. In making a start the Trust has perhaps wisely not set its sights too high, but there must surely be a wider audience for theatre of the calibre which the Trust appears able to offer and the Trust must seek it out. The Maori people must also give the Trust their support, for it can be a powerful propagandizing agency. The Maori has for too long been inarticulate. The Maori Theatre Trust offers Pakehas an opportunity to evaluate our young people and the contribution they are capable of making to the artistic and cultural life of our country. In this respect the image which the Trust can project, judging from its recent performances in Wellington, is a strong cause for legitimate pride by us all.