By Bruce Mason; Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | July 19-August 11
Thirteen years of lovingly written letters greeted me as I walked into the Maidment. Hanging above the relatively simple stage (slanted towards the audience, only lovingly crafted wooden furniture on a lovingly crafted front porch on the slant) were blackboards with letters on it, each letter signed at the end by Matt. You could make out what each of them said if you wanted to ignore the play, but the effect of this visual was immediate. The letters literally hang over the play, and the people who inhabit it. The letters also drive the action of the play, and set up the heart wrenching drama. It’s a brilliant design concept (courtesy of Tony Rabbit) that perfectly sets the foundation for what’s to follow.
One of the least performed plays in Bruce Mason’s impressive oeuvre, Awatea is nonetheless one of his strongest pieces. A brief plot summary only goes so far, but here it is: a small community on the East Coast in Omoana is preparing for their seventh annual hui on New Year’s Eve, an event that celebrates the return of prodigal son and doctor Matt (Te Kohe Tuhaka) to heal them. Matt holds all the hopes and dreams of his blind father Werihe (George Henare), signified by the hundreds of letters he has sent in his thirteen years of practicing as a doctor. These letters have been dutifully read out to him by the boisterous and stubbornly rural-in-disposition Gilhooly (Geraldine Brophy). On the eve of the hui, things inevitably get complicated, and Gilhooly has to fight to keep the hui going well—for the sake of Matt, his whanau and Werihe’s pride and mana.
Similar to his other triumphs, The End of the Golden Weather and The Pohutukawa Tree, Awatea details with incisiveness the relationship between Pakeha and Maori, not only as different races, but as different cultures with their own sets of rituals, customs, and definitions of family and relationships. This play specifically deals with the kind of bond formed between a father and a son, a community and their hero, and what those kinds of bonds mean for the individual. Throughout all of this, there’s an undercurrent of what truth really is, and what happens when a myth becomes the truth for a person or for a community.
If this is beginning to sound like a high school essay (or maybe a university student’s essay if I’m lucky), much of the credit for this successful production belongs to the source material. Massive kudos has to go to Auckland Theatre Company for reviving the work of this important New Zealand playwright over the past few years, and especially for this powerful, intelligent work. It says a lot to how little our society has moved forward in terms of Pakeha-Maori relations that a lot of the conversations in this play—set in the 1960s—feel as timely and stirring as they must have when it opened at the Wellington Town Hall in 1968. Awatea is as relevant to today’s society and theatre-goers as it was when it premiered, and it’s hard to credit Bruce Mason’s generation-defining writing enough for that reason.
But onto the production of the play: in what has proven to be a great season of bringing new voices to traditional stories and experienced voices to new stories, Auckland Theatre Company mixes the two in this moving, simultaneously delicate and visceral production. The large cast, fifteen strong, move through the text with grace and gravitas, lending both lightness and heaviness to the production when it is called for. A stunning opening scene between Pera (Nicole Kawana) and Ana (Nancy Brunning) securely nails the tone of the piece: light, but always within the comedy is a sadness; a knowledge that things are changing and are going to change. But it’s just fine. Both actresses are great in the scene. From their interaction we instantly know how this family relates to one another and just how they work in the world around them.
The twin stars of this production are undoubtedly George Henare and Geraldine Brophy. Henare is elemental as the blind Werihe, and embodies this old man and his specific sense of pride and decorum through his weathered physicality as much as by his somehow eloquently garbled speech. Brophy functions as the comic relief of the piece, and fulfils this winningly, giving the play a breathe of fresh air when the audience desperately needs one, however she is also the most important dramatic foil and audience surrogate. We feel that she is as much a part of this family—self-inserted, but still part of it—as much as we are. She is as invested in this family as we are. The final act is largely between the two of them, and it’s a rare sight to see two of New Zealand’s most accomplished performers going toe-for-toe in one of New Zealand’s best plays. There are moments during this last scene where they even seem to be breathing together. It’s hard to put into words, but at the risk of simplifying, this is why people go to theatre.
As the returning son Matt, Te Kohe Tuhaka strikes a charismatic figure on stage, but I keep going back and forth on whether this is the appropriate treatment for the character. He seems at odds, stylistically, with the rest of the cast, delivering his lines more to the audience than to the other actors. On one level, this works for that character: Matt is someone who is as devoted to the shackles of his community as he is tired of them. On another, it seems oddly disconnecting from the piece. This isn’t to say that he isn’t effective at times, but I wonder if this was the right approach for this play, or at least this production of this play.
A particular highlight, which I can’t forget, is Cian Elyse White as the self-appointed popular girl of the whanau, Tina. In her debut for ATC, she completely owns the stage and draws the eye. She makes Tina more than just the popular girl who wants the attention of the returning Matt. Cian’s Tina wants what Matt has: she wants to be something, to get out of this town. It’s a stunning debut from an actress I want to see a lot more of on future stages.
On the whole, Awatea is more than just reviving a piece of great New Zealand theatre, it’s reviving a piece of necessary theatre. It’s a word I’ve applied to a lot Auckland Theatre Company’s productions this year, such as In The Next Room and Black Confetti. However, whereas those plays gave us new voices and new ideas, this play brings us ideas that are still as fresh, engaging, and urgent as they were over four decades ago.