By Oscar Kightley and Dave Armstrong
Directed by Ben Crowder
Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | October 2-5
Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland | October 15-25
This production of Niu Sila has huge shoes to fill. I myself have never seen Niu Sila performed before, but almost every theatre person I know seems to have some experience with the play in an earlier form. Three nights into its season at Q Theatre, where it kicks off a tour, I got a little sense of why people rave about it.
Niu Sila, written by Oscar Kightley and Dave Armstrong, is a deceptively simple story about the friendship between Peter Burton (David Van Horn) and Ioane Tafioka (Fasitua Amosa). It’s a meeting, and sometimes a clash, of their cultures—Peter comes from an upper middle-class Pakeha family whereas Ioana comes from a working-class Samoan family. Niu Sila derives much of its content and conflict from this clash, not just through Peter and Ioane, but between the cultures surrounding them and how it defines how they grow up in 1960s New Zealand.
I’m not breaking new ground by going into the thematic content of Niu Sila’s script, which is deep and still surprisingly, depressingly relevant to present day New Zealand. Van Horn and Amosa play a kaleidoscope of characters surrounding the friendship of Peter and Ioana, from Peter’s well-meaning liberal parents, to Ioana’s suspect pastor, to a neighbour across the street who disapproves of the Tafiokas moving into her street. The script and the actors ably set up a New Zealand where other people’s perceptions of race, class, and culture have huge impacts on the life one can lead—almost as much as your own perception of these factors.
Van Horn and Amosa have a great chemistry with each other, and both turn in appealing performances. Amosa in particular has a knack for characterisation that makes even the smallest of characters sing; his portrayal of the Tafioka matriarch is both hilarious and authentic to that character. Van Horn suffers a little with his portrayals of female characters, which come off as caricatures more than characters, and he is less seamless moving in between characters than Amosa is. It doesn’t hurt the play, and both will likely improve tremendously on tour; it’d be a great experiment to see them at the end of the tour and see how these performances have continued to blossom.
Crowder’s direction keeps the piece moving, and it’s a credit to him that this 70 minute show feels both swift and like we’re getting a panoramic snapshot of what it was like to live in urban New Zealand during this time. Supporting this is an ingenious piece of set design, courtesy of John Parker, and one that I hope I can describe adequately enough: two raked green platforms in the shape of the North Island and the South Island. After the initial sight, it fades into a versatile piece of design, and both islands fill many roles throughout the piece. Jane Hakaraia’s lighting design is subtle and keeps things in sharp relief, although one scene scored to Donna Summer is delightfully over-the-top.
It’s not a perfect production—some of easy jokes that have become Armstrong’s go-to are visible here and they’re much easier to predict now than they were in 2005—but it’s definitely a production that is worthy of this play. The ending has remarkable pathos and brings the entire show to a head; it’s a reminder that these characters are not just stand-ins for a time in New Zealand, but represent actual human beings who lived through this time. This moment displays Niu Sila’s greatest strength: to tackle some big issues that persist in New Zealand today while still telling a story of two lives that any of us could have lived.