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February 25, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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Te Karakia

An Interview with director David O’Donnell

If you study theatre at Vic you probably already know, without me having to tell you, that David O’Donnell is the man, but if you’ve just started studying I will tell you this plainly and I will tell you this simply — David O’Donnell is the man. And if David O’Donnell (or, as he is affectionately known, “Dod”) is putting on a play, you know for sure that it’s going to be a damn good one.

It’s obvious to anyone who has ever had a class with David that his knowledge of theatre is very broad, broader even than Joel Cosgrove’s rippling biceps. Last year we saw David directing the Russian realist play Enemies up here at Victoria, and just before that he won Best Director at the Chapman Tripp awards (the Wellington Theatre version of the Oscars) for his work on Yours Truly, which also won Best Production and Best New Writer. For the past year, Dod been working on the new New Zealand play Te Karakia for the International Arts Festival. Last week David kindly took some time out from his busy rehearsal schedule to have a yabber with me about his new play.

Te Karakia centres around a Maori guy and a Pakeha woman. Set during the infamous Springbok Tour of ’81, the show uses an historical story to highlight current race relation issues. “For me,” says David, “this play is a kind of a state of the nation play, because I think Albert (Belz, Te Karakia’s author who also wrote Yours Truly) is very interested in race relations in this context and where they’re going now.” When I asked if he considered the play a political piece, however, David is quick to rebuff. “First and foremost, it’s a story about people.”

David has assembled something of a celebrity cast from across the country for Te Karakia. Fans of Shortland Street may have seen Donogh Rees, known to some as the crabby Judy Brownlee, fluttering about Aro Valley in some seriously funky stockings during her rehearsal breaks. Other ex-Shorty stars in the production include Calvin Tuteao (who played Victor Kahu) and Tim Foley (aka Mark Weston). David is excited about this line-up, which sounds as though it should deliver some truly stand-out performances.

As Te Karakia is a part of the International Arts Festival, and yet is clearly a New Zealand play, I asked David to explain the value of performing New Zealand works in this context.

“Because New Zealand is part of the world!” he exclaims. “It’s really important that Aotearoa has a voice.” David takes me back to his early years of working in the theatre industry, where he says he saw a serious lack of New Zealand plays on the stage. “I was a professional actor for 5 years before I ever used my own accent in a play,” he tells me. Showcasing New Zealand work at an international level has been an important step in the development of a definitively New Zealand theatre industry, he says.

Te Karakia has been commissioned by Taki Rua Productions, one of New Zealand’s most successful and influential theatre companies. Beginning as the Depot Theatre in the 80’s, Taki Rua became a touring group in 1996. David is quite excited that the company are celebrating their 25 year anniversary, and rightly so. Their work has, over the last quarter century, been regarded as exemplary of the talent and potential of New Zealand theatre, with works such as Purapurawhetu and The Prophet achieving high critical acclaim. The productions often focus on cultural identity in a New Zealand context. David explains to me how the name “Taki Rua” is a special type of Maori weave, using two strands side by side. “The name Taki Rua implies a bi-cultural relationship,” he tells me. “I feel privileged as a Pakeha director to be invited in to do a show like this.”

From what David has told me, it seems that Te Karakia is shaping up to be a standout in a festival already brimming with a exciting variety of shows and performances. As David says, it is all too important to have New Zealand works on stage next to international artists, as it helps to remind us that our voice is as precious as any other from around the world. Don’t miss out on the chance to see one of Wellington’s best directors tackle what is promising to be one of this year’s definitive works.


Written by Albert Belz
Directed by David O’Donnell
At Downstage, Feb 27-29, Mar 1,3,4 @ 7.30pm,
Mar 2 @ 4pm

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  1. Year 12 Drama Class says:

    “Te Karakia centres around a Maori guy and a Pakeha woman.”
    Have you actually seen it????
    The male lead (ginga) is NZ/European and Ranea (The female lead) is maori. we find this article misleading and unaccurate…
    We suggest, if you intented to make a career as a theatre critic, you get your facts straight and don’t rely on 16-year-old students to correct your incompetence. And we strongly advise you to see the play before attempting a review. Unlike David O’Donnell, your knowledge on theatre is not as broad as Daniel Radcliffe’s weak knobbly knees.

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