NZ Arts Festival 2008, Downstage Theatre
Feb 27-March 4 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

DESCRIBED as a play “set amidst the maelstrom of the 1981 Springbok Tour,” Te Karakia is more of an exploration of personal relations, an uncovering of the complexities of personal politics and a view of the formative influences on the lives of New Zealanders than an overtly political depiction of the rugby tour. The dominance of the theme of Christianity is perhaps more evident than that of rugby: the moment you enter the space of Downstage you are struck by the sight of three large crosses. These double as rough telephone poles to place and date the play in rural 1980s New Zealand, but their religious overtones are clear. A symbolic, gravel-filled line which splits the length of the stage is the only immediate hint at the presence of divisive Springbok Tour in the lives of the characters on stage.

After an initially jolting scene in which Miriama McDowell (Ranea) and Tim Foley (Matthew) find their voices as children playing at a bus stop, the play lengthens its stride to become finally, deeply affecting. Theatrical imagery and script combine to weave a poetic and engrossing, multi-faceted tale, which is striking for the sincerity its lack of obvious ego and personality on behalf of the writer and crew affords. You get a sense that playwright Albert Belz has managed to keep at bay his own emotional investment in the issues of the play; his personal sense of justice, while ultimately hinted at, is broad minded and refreshingly non-judgmental.

The most beautiful and moving aspect of the writer’s craft is the way he complicates the easy dichotomy of good person-bad person. Te Karakia presents sympathetic people with racist views, and violent people with egalitarian views. It shows the complex array of positions within both sides of the ‘camp,’ and most effectively, shows how those views are by no means inherent, and may have come into being through oppressive familial or societal pressures.

There’s a Maori policeman, Phillip, who is pro-Springbok and keen on violence; a Pakeha policeman who is questioning his position but, ostracized from his family, relies on the ‘colours’ of the police uniform for his identity. The force of Christianity is shown as suppressive and chilling; until a long, white, Christian cross is used as a bastion and weapon for the protestors against racism.

The yellow and blue tones of Jennifer Lal’s lighting design haunt the scenes of religious stoicism and piousness, and add much to the loneliness of central character Matthew, and his repressed desires. The bright colours, and music (from Stephen Gallagher), of the rallying protestors arrive in warm contrast to the protestant world of Matthew.

Calvin Tuteao and Paul McLaughlin as the duo of fathers Tohu and Gareth, are a consistent, empathetic and highly skillful pair. Likewise as the pair of childhood and then teenage friends, Miriama McDowell and Tim Foley capture a naivety and eagerness that slowly and effectively fades, as the pressures of societal expectations take their toll. Foley is bright and cuddly as the young Matthew; McDowell’s ability really shines as the passionate and self-aware older Ranea.

The only note of dissonance in the play, for me, was the predictability and slight cliché of the scene between Ranea as the young Maori girl and Gareth as the repressed missionary landowner. This scene seemed too obviously a plot device to set up the later betrayal and estrangement of one of the characters, while relying to heavily on the cliché of repressed religious figure.

I felt also a measure of disappointment that there were not greater elements of the Springbok Tour on display. To be fair the publicity never stated that the Tour was anything more than a setting, but perhaps the enchantment and energy of the protest scenes was so affecting I left wishing for more. The invasion of the rugby ground at Hamilton came as a powerful and welcome contrast to the intimate drama of proceeding scenes, and although I was left thankful for the mode in which Director David O’Donnell and the cast understated the violence and conflict of the clash – it was far more effective and visceral than any explicit depiction of violence – I was disappointed the Springbok ‘backdrop’ ended there.

However, the play primarily explores the impact of divisive current events on the relationships of the people involved, and is not a historical account of one event by any means. In his Director’s Note O’Donnell mentions the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed legislation, and the recent, unfounded terrorist raids on Ruatoki to highlight the play’s contemporary relevance. In all of these events, both Maori and Pakeha, laypeople and police people are deeply affected and swayed by their views; working out which is ‘right’ requires – among other things – a consideration of who these people are, and where they come from.