Driven by secrets, Frances Edmond

When Sun and Moon Collide
Briar Grace-Smith
Huia, $21.88,
ISBN 9781869693169

Sons
Victor Rodger
Huia, $21.88,
ISBN 9781869693039

Why publish a play? Well, a book is a nice thing to hold, material and solid: a small package containing something intriguing, challenging, entertaining – one hopes. And these are nice books: both have vivid photographic covers, evocative of the content. When Sun and Moon Collide shows an image of the emotional and physical territory the play inhabits: a woman running through a barren landscape, surrounded by forbidding hills and overhung by a torrid sky. Sons displays, ironically, that ubiquitous Polynesian symbol – an hibiscus flower, brilliant against a dark background.

A play is an elusive, slippery thing, existing only in the moment that it occurs, retrievable through the unreliable mechanism of memory with its ability to adapt and metamorphose. A play in a book isn’t strictly a play because most of what makes a play – actors, audience, setting, lights and sound – is absent. There is only the text, the template for a play. And, although I have seen other plays by both these playwrights, I have not seen either of these works performed.

These two texts have some common features: both are published by Huia, who are “committed to publishing Maori perspectives within a Pacific and indigenous framework”; neither is new. When Sun and Moon Collide was first presented as part of the SheBang Festival, a festival of new plays by New Zealand women, held at Bats Theatre in Wellington in 2000. Sons, Rodger’s first play, had an extended birthing process: first performed in 1995 at the Court Theatre in Christchurch, it was “substantially re-written” and presented at Downstage Theatre in Wellington in 1998 and “a slightly altered version” was performed at the Herald Theatre in Auckland – the latter two productions by Taki Rua of Wellington. And both plays are by prize-winning authors: Sons won the Chapman Tripp award for best play (1998), and Grace-Smith has won numerous awards, including the Chapman Tripp award for best play for an earlier work, Purapurawhetu.

Furthermore, these plays sit within the context of a Maori/Pacific theatre renaissance. Both traverse the inter-racial divide, exploring issues of identity, isolation and abandonment – cultural, personal, familial; and both are stories where secrets drive character and action. In When Sun and Moon Collide, Isaac, lost and passive, has inherited tearooms set in the middle of nowhere that no-one frequents, except Francie, who “runs everywhere and is unable to eat.” Isaac is in love with Francie but cannot tell her. On the night of the dark of the moon – mutuwhenua, when the earth is unproductive – Declan, released from prison for violent crimes that he claims were committed by Jason (who inhabits him at mutuwhenua) arrives at the tearooms needing somewhere to stay. Add to this the local cop Travis (Mereana) who is having a love affair with Francie’s so-called brother, Vic (an unseen presence), and whose relationship with Declan is murky and complicated. In the background is the unsolved murder, on Travis’ territory, of two Danish backpackers: the crime obsesses Francie, and Travis’ inability to solve it has undermined her self-worth.

It’s a very complex network of plot strands and relationships, underpinned by threats of violence, the need for human connection and the Maori lunar cycle as explained to Declan by his koro (grandfather, also unseen). As the story unfolds it pulls all of the characters into an ever-tightening web, until mutuwhenua comes around again, and Isaac reveals his secret – the identity of the murderer of the backpackers – which propels them all into an explosive and destructive untangling. Are they liberated? One assumes so but the question of consequences is not addressed. A production should provide some clarity but a reading leaves the moral page blank.

The writing is apparently naturalistic yet the power of mythology, of unseen forces at work in the natural world, takes it out of the dimension of the ordinary. Grace-Smith has a feeling for simplicity of dialogue overlaying a depth of subtext. In production, a heavy hand would damage both the epic and the mundane, and tying it to literalism would highlight some awkwardness in the set up: for example Travis’ rather implausible obsession with Declan.

Sons, a semi-autobiographical piece, is the story of Noah, a young afakasi (half caste) man’s search for his identity and his origins. It “nods its head to Albert Wendt’s Sons for the Return Home, that seminal and ground-breaking novel of the Samoan immigrant to New Zealand”. When Noah, who has been brought up by his palagi mother, Grace, hears his father, Manu’a, is ill, he goes in search of him – after 10 years without contact. His desire to reconcile with his father is universally opposed: protectively by his Scottish grandmother, Nan; indifferently by his mother Grace and palagi girlfriend Alex; fiercely by Manu’a’s palagi wife Sandra (who is the mother of Manu’a’s son Lua and daughter Tausili, neither of whom are aware of their half-brother’s existence). However, Noah, as determined as his father, persists in seeking out his Samoan heritage and when he eventually reveals his identity to Lua, the disclosure rips apart Manu’a’s carefully controlled world and devastates his family.

Rodger writes with a kind of gleeful savagery, mercilessly spotlighting personal and cultural hypocrisy. For example, Lua, describing Noah: “Who? Mr Cameo Cream, brown on the outside, but all white in the middle? What a dick.” As with When Sun and Moon Collide, it is apparently naturalistic. However, the action flows fluidly from scene to scene, and the use of music and dance as both action and commentary lift it beyond realism. It demands an almost operatic style, as well as larger than life characterisations where wicked humour and the gripping hurt of lost identity can carry equal force.

Comprehensive and interesting study guides, including reviews of productions, follow the texts of the plays, guiding readers, teachers, students, theatre practitioners through the process of understanding and of producing the plays.

So why publish these plays? To affirm what the vagaries of memory might mislay or confuse, to leave a record of these important dramatic works, and to create the possibility of future productions.

 

Frances Edmond is an Auckland screenwriter and reviewer.

 

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Posted in Literature, Plays and Review
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