By Stuart Hoar
Directed by Susan Wilson
New Zealand Festival
Circa Theatre | February 22-March 16 (+ additional dates)
The first local work in the festival, Pasefika tells the story of Parisian artist, Charles Méryon (Jason Whyte) over two time periods and in two disparate lands. We open in Paris of the 1860s and jump back and forth between New Zealand in 1840. Pasefika imagines the journey of Meryon from New Zealand to France, during a time when artistic enterprise and colonial endeavor were burgeoning. The plays strongest attribute is that it does not assume the authority of a documentary, rather the tale is a mélange of forms and influences, blending traditional costume, Méryon’s own artwork, and our modern sensibilities to tell its story.
In 1840s Akaroa, Méryon builds a waka using a totara from a local Pa, an act of defiance against the captain of his ship. The Pa is also home to Madame Bourgeois (Emma Kinane), a French settler married to the tribes Chief (George Henare), and Ruiha (Aroha Whyte), the chief’s daughter.
Soaring twenty years into the future, Méryon is back in Paris, being pestered by Charles Baudelaire (Henare again) to collaborate on an art exhibition. All Méryon wants though, is to wallow in his melancholy and flat whites and lie about his relationship with barista, Louise Niveau (Aroha Whyte). As the play continues, a conspiracy about a group of Parisian elite, headed up by Edgar Allen Poe, who wield profound power over artists in Paris, emerges. Sexual perversity seeps into Paris and the entitled Bourgeoisie get their comeuppance.
The first act introduces us to two entirely different worlds. Paris of the 1860s, complete with fluid, stylised movement, decadent costumes and camp acting, is home to indulgence and passion. The camp cosmopolitan world of Paris, reminiscent of Moulin Rouge, has an air of the ridiculous. On the other hand, rough colonial New Zealand is more familiar territory for kiwi theatregoers; cue heightened poetic language and stern naturalism.
These performance styles take a while to get used to, but once the modes settle, they become quite an elegant way of expressing the pace and conditions of the separate lifestyles. It isn’t helped that the actors take a while to warm into the two distinct modes of performance.
The third ingredient is an injection of modern life. This is certainly no documentary, many of the events are embellished, and jargon and elements of today infiltrate. Unlike last year’s Midnight in Moscow, which imagined events of the past as a fourth wall drama, this historical fanfiction finds a fresh way of telling stories of old, creating a complex piece. Our narrator pauses the action around him with a flourish, characters drink flat whites, and couples ‘fuck’.
At its heart the play is about impossible relationships, people, and worlds that cannot sit together, and what happens when they rub together for too long. Whether it’s the etchings of Méryon that cannot live next to Beauderlere’s poetry, French settlers who cannot make a home in New Zealand, or decadent socialites willingly letting their lifestyles sabotage each other, Stewart Hoar’s play cracks open some properly interesting questions about the dissonances of history.
It’s all played out on an elegant white set with large sheets of gauze, upon which Méryon’s etchings are projected.
Indeed the work contains much to intrigue, but in its current iteration it doesn’t quite work. On opening night a few missed cues and dropped lines ruin the flow, hampering the audience’s engagement from the get go. The pace of the first act is very slow and the closing sequence, an attempted collision of New Zealand, France, madness and poetry, doesn’t reach the heights it deserves.
This is a work that deserves development, and hopefully we’ll be seeing it again very soon.
* * *
By Briar Grace-Smith
Auckland Theatre Company/Okareka Dance Company
New Zealand Festival
Soundings Theatre, Te Papa | February 26-March 5
The opening tableau of Paniora! sees Te Mamaenui (Nancy Brunning), matriarch of the Paniora (half Spanish, half Maori people) standing outside her home at dusk, with an owl (played with grace and wit by Taiaroa Royal) perched high on a rusty set. This simple opening scene calls on Maori and Spanish mythology, fuses drama and dance together flawlessly and elegantly introduces an omen that sits through the play. Unfortunately such crafted and gentle moments are rare in Briar Grace-Smith’s volatile tale of cultures and family members clashing.
Paniora! follows a large family over a few days. The hodgepodge family appears to be jovial, light, and peppy, but it isn’t long before the audience realises exactly why their reunions are so rare. The happy hosts, Terry (Hera Dunleavy) and Jimmy Hotai (Kirk Torrance) struggle to keep the party atmosphere, but as facades drop bad habits return, secrets emerge and the Hotai’s home becomes a bull ring of squabbles, sex, and sangria. Jimmy’s marriage begins to show signs of struggle as he is tempted by an old flame. The neighbouring farm keeps getting its wire fence cut open. Flirtatious men tempt wives and daughters, no one loves who they appear to love, family members disappear and reappear and dodgy barmen lie their way into risky jobs.
The soap opera-esque drama is justified in the play because it’s rooted in cultural questions. Ancient tribal conflicts, legacies of the past and the family’s Spanish origin are to blame for their spats. The set design (Sean Coyle and Nic Smillie) also alludes to Spanish ancestry, a rusting bull ring lined with sand and rich, colourful lighting suggest fading majesty and austerity. A mysterious chest from the past even makes an appearance for a few scenes. But these elements are asked to sit alongside Barney Duncan’s comic turn as modern-day matador Esteban Valdez and Terry’s ‘Spanish’ tacos.
The dance component, which rises gently out of the drama, does excellent work linking the bustle on stage to the spiritual heart of the play. The soap opera drama is distilled by Okareka Dance Company, who are integrated into action throughout, but tease us with short bursts of dance within scenes. It isn’t until the final sequence that they are finally allowed to let loose. The concluding bull fight brings the conflicts of the play, both between families and between cultures, head to head, and Okareka Dance Company brilliantly weave Maori dance, Flamenco and contemporary dance together with an ease the text cannot quite muster.
The domestic drama becomes so intricate that it becomes overwhelming and difficult to follow. Unfortunately some key story details appear to be lost as events unfold, and it becomes difficult to remember all the exposition we need to feel the full force of the dramatic twists and turns. There end of the play includes several climaxes, and, although every story has its conclusion, we never get to properly feel for any individual. This epic, sprawling form could hit us strongly, but in this iteration of the story, I needed a family tree to keep up. The play ends with a haka, allowing us to see the entire Hotai family together, facing the future.
This is a play that leaves an audience feeling overfed. The eclectic threads aren’t clearly rooted in anything to leave feeling satisfied. There are too many storylines, too many tones, too much ‘concept’ to ever let us enjoy spending time with the Hotai family.