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July 12, 2010 | by  | in Theatre |
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A Hit and A Miss—The Legacy of Taki Rua

Theatre

This week Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland, the latest work from Taki Rua productions, opens at Downstage after great success in the International Festival. It comes just on the crest of a mini-wave of Maori theatre in Wellington with He Reo Aroha in Circa Two and Te Kaupoi at BATS. All sit rather cleanly within the genre of Maori theatre, if it could ever really be reductively termed as such. They all have the combination of Western theatrical forms with the oral tradition of Te Reo. They all have the troubled family relationships. They all have the struggle for identity. They are, however, three very different works of very varying quality. Mark Twain is a masterpiece in a confused structure, and the biggest allure of the Downstage return season is to see just how far the play has come since its premiere. He Reo Aroha is a beautiful, if slight, gesture of emotion. Te Kaupoi is simply a dud.

Originally a performance space called the Depot before becoming a roaming theatrical production company spreading their own inspirational and inspired form of Maori theatre around the country, Taki Rua are renowned as masters of their form, and for very good reason. Their work is, almost without exception, poetic, powerful, moving and profoundly political. Taki Rua know what they are doing and for 27 years their shadow has hung long. The hard shine of the Taki Rua eclipse was cast very long across both Aroha and Kaupoi, both of which where directed by Taki Rua alumni. He Reo Aroha, by Hone Kouka, writer of some of Taki Rua’s most famous and powerful works. Te Kaupoi, by Nancy Brunning, a powerful actress whose profound capacity for emotion defined what some are calling Taki Rua’s golden years.

Both shows have, at their centre, a love story. In He Reo Aroha, we see the story of Kaia (Kali Kopae) and Pascoe (Jamie McCaskill), a seemingly perfect couple who seem just to never find the circumstances to properly reconcile after a number of misunderstandings and arguments. Te Kaupoi gives us Zeke (Jason Te Kare) and Sarah (Kay Smith), who seem to get together for no apparent reason just to give the plot something to do as it lazily dribbles from beginning to end. The difference that, as an audience member, you cared about Kaia and Pascoe. You wanted them together. You didn’t give two tosses about Zeke and Sarah. They might as well have burbled like babies for the overlong 90 minutes of Te Kaupoi for all we cared about them.

Both shows strived for the lyricism and inherent poetry of Taki Rua’s work. Again He Reo Aroha succeeds where Kaupoi fails. Not only in its charming songs but in the quiet domestic dialogue of the small town, Aroha manages to eek as much emotion out of its words than out of its story. Kaupoi is filled with cringe-inducing attempts at the same thing. Mere (Tina Cook), Zeke’s kinda estranged mother, fixes his shirt and all he can manage to gurn out is the groan-inducing “If only everything was fixed with a needle and thread.”

Te Kaupoi’s biggest flaw sits not in the shouty performances or the shunting, erratic emotional arc—which is not so much an arc as EVERYONE FIGHTING ALL THE TIME—but in just how blatant it is. Set in the near future, after the removal of the Maori seats caused massive civil unrest, every Maori person is assumed to be a terrorist and the Resistance is inspired by the mysterious pirate radio DJ Te Kaupoi. With only one male in the cast, the shock reveal that Zeke is Te Kaupoi is not so much a twist as a limp head-tilt. This concept has much promise and there is a lot to be explored in it. It just isn’t. Te Kaupoi manages to be simultaneously too oblique and too obvious to pay attention to. One of the twists, the big final reveal in fact, is so obvious from about five minutes in that it actually becomes rather comic that the characters haven’t worked it out as well. Taki Rua has set the bar extremely high when it comes to the Maori political theatre. Throughout their work they manage to be both wide-ranging and subtle. They let the audience work it out for themselves. Te Kaupoi seems to have no trust in its audience’s intelligence, as characters time after time after time monologue, unironically explicitly stating the morals of the play. Te Kaupoi doesn’t only make a point, it shoves it like a javelin into your bemused face.

He Reo Aroha’s success lies in its delicacy, in its small scale. It didn’t feel the need to be broad. They know, as Taki Rua does, that the more specific a story is, the more people can relate. It is the detail that draws us in. The delightful portrait that the two actors paint of the small Northland fishing town where the majority of the action takes place is so detailed that you cannot help but feel you have visited it.

Where Te Kaupoi tries for Taki Rua’s scale and fails, He Reo Aroha aims for their intimacy and more than succeeds.

He Reo Aroha
wri. Miria George and Jamie McCaskill
comp. Hone Hurihanganui, Kali Kopae and Jamie McCaskill
dir. Hone Kouka
perf. Kali Kopae and Jamie McCaskill
at Circa Two, 16 – 26 June 2010

Te Kaupoi
wri. Whiti Hereaka
dir. Nancy Brunning
perf. Kay Smith, Jason Te Kare and Tina Cook
at BATS theatre, 10 ­– 26 June 2010

Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland
wri. David Geary and the Company
dir. John Bolton
perf. Maaka Pohatu, Stephen Papps, Ngapaki Emery, Aaron Cortesi and Allan Henry
at Downstage, 14 – 24 July 2010, book at www.downstage.co.nz

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About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

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