From melodrama to professionalism, Sunny Amey

The Land of the Moa
George Leitch, edited by Adrian Kiernander,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990, $19.95

Tomasi: For Islands Far Away
Harrison Bray
Playmarket, Wellington, 1990, $16.95

Power Play
Rachel McAlpine,
Playmarket, Wellington, 1990, $12.95

Billy
Vincent O’Sullivan,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990, $12.22

The Land of the Moa is the first publication of a play written and presented in 1895 by the colourful actor/playwright/manager, George Leitch. Described as a sensational melodrama, it presented extraordinary scenic and special effects that included the Pink Terraces and a recreation of the Tarawera eruption. Purported to be the most widely performed play in this country’s history, with its ten tons of scenery it toured extensively in both New Zealand and Australia. The introduction by editor and researcher, Adrian Kiernander, comprises almost half the book, and is excellent reading.

The melodrama is appealing as theatre history, with a certain nostalgia for those who remember the days of fly towers, cut cloths, transformation, sensational effects and coups de théatre. The depictions of the Maori characters, though well intentioned, are naive and often ludicrous although some are heroic. There are smatterings of true tribal mores, despite the ritual accompaniment of drumbeats and other ethnically inaccurate details.

Tomasi: For Islands Far Away was written by Harrison Bray for the special occasion of the 1988 Annual Conference of the Methodist Church. It is a play with music, i.e. hymns, about the arrival of Christianity in Tonga in the first half of the 19th century. The text is didactic, and there is more talk than action. Although there are some scenes about cultural difference and misunderstandings there are too few of interaction and interchange on a level of human warmth and understanding. There are all too few plays on Pacific Island themes and although Tomasi, with its hymns in Maori and Tongan, may well have relevance for a church audience, there are bigger plays yet to be written.

Rachel McAlpine wrote Power Play in response to a request from students at Opunake High School. She has written several successful plays based on discussion with adolescents and has again translated this knowledge of these major concerns into a drama that has already been performed and enjoyed by a number of schools. Although it deals with issues around smoking, the author states that it is principally ‘about power, sharing power, gaining power and using power in a healthy, appropriate way’, hence McAlpine has created a text with songs that is suitable for performance by young Maori and Pakeha. She has consulted widely with Maori people both young and old, and emphasises that some aspects of the play should be discussed fully with local kaumaatua to obtain their blessing on the enterprise. Although set in Taranaki, alternative versions of songs are given and permission to adapt as necessary when performed in other areas. McAlpine has this generosity towards her texts and allows for and encourages freedom, invention and creative input.

Vincent O’Sullivan’s Billy, set in the New South Wales penal colony in the 1820s is a haunting play by a writer who knows his craft. Billy, the deaf-mute Aboriginal servant of the title has the presence of one who knows all. Each character is sharply delineated and constantly intriguing. The dialogue is crisp and direct and is laced with humour and irony. These colonials, dislocated from their culture and ‘Mother England’ are living in an isolated community. Billy’s cultural dislocation is clear from his ludicrous appearance in butler’s uniform at the beginning of the play. The hopes and fears, intrigues and heightened intensities of a small disparate group thrown together in alien surroundings, are revealed. The brooding landscape creeps into their English sitting room. The outdoor scenes have elements of danger and for the women, a release into something other than normal daily life. The playwright’s programme note from the original production attempts to justify the use of a New Zealand actor, Pakeha, to play the part of Billy. This play should ideally be performed with an Aboriginal actor in the title role. It would then have a poignancy and an accusation that would deny the possibility of expiation to those who have colonised indigenous peoples in many countries of the world.

 

Sunny Amey was formerly theatre director at Downstage Theatre from 1970-74 and Education Officer for Drama from 1975-88 in the Department of Education. She retired in October 1988, only to complete almost two years as Interim Director at the New Zealand Drama School, from which she retired in May 1991.

 

 

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