Rare and valuable flowers, Adrian Kiernander

He Reo Hou: 5 Plays by Maori Playwrights
Playmarket, Wellington, 1991, $25.30

E nga rangatira, teena koutou, teena koutou, teena koutou,
e nga mate, haere, haere, haere,
e nga iwi katoa, teena koutou, teena koutou, teena koutou.

What are my qualifications to be writing a review of this, the first published collection of Maori plays? Me, a Pakeha who doesn’t even live in the country any more. I admit very little, but on the other hand enough perhaps to make a start, in that I am a member of one of the groups of readers to whom this book is important: the group, what is more, which is going to increase most in numbers over the next few years – those people who are interested in Maori theatre but who have not been able to see any of these five plays in their first performance.

Theatre is inherently evanescent, and even more so when it is not mainstream. That’s why a collection like this is doubly important. It is a stimulus for the people who are still doing the groundwork, and it is a record of the rapid growth in Maori theatre over the past 20 years for those like me who are far away, and for those to whom we will one day be ancestors.

I can claim to have been there in the early days, at the first performance of Harry Dansey’s Te Raukura in 1972, though I doubt that many of us at the time really understood the implications of the new voice that we heard for the first time that night. In the background for me then was Dick Johnstone with his stories, both funny and inspirational, about the world tour of the Maori Theatre Trust. George Henare was then forging a convention that allowed Maori actors to take on roles like King Lear, clearing a path with Rawiri Paratene, Jim Moriarty and others close on his heels; and I took part in a production of Oedipus Rex at Central Theatre where Hemi Rapata played the title role. Through Hemi’s performance I genuinely understood for the first time how Maori traditions of public performance might enrich a moribund western classical traditionand how the embarrassment of the English line ‘Oh Agony’ could be invested with the power of ‘Aue, taukuri e’.

Later I watched Rangimoana Taylor’s development from a fascinating actor into one of the most influential directors in the growth of Maori theatre with his productions at the Depot, while Renée was jolting mainstream theatre into an awareness of marginalised groups. And then came Waituhi, which seemed like a private romantic fantasy when we started thinking about it in 1981, but which, by 1984, seemed for a moment to make its mark on the whole country. That was when I really began to learn something – though still only a little – about Maori theatre, thanks to Witi Ihimaera and the huge cast of the opera. And then I left. Almost everything I know about what has happened since has been by hearsay or from this book.

To my surprise, and pleasure, Waituhi ranks as only the 15th chronological item out of 47 productions of stage plays by Maori playwrights listed by Simon Garrett at the back of this book. Were we that early? Has so much happened since? The list is exciting – a lot of people have been very busy in the last seven years, and it looks as if Maori theatre has been able to make a much greater impact on the mainstream than Black Australian theatre has across the Tasman.

Given this impact, it is surprising that it’s taken so long for a collection like this to appear in print. With such a small percentage of Maori scripts available, it seems something of a waste that one of these five plays was duplicated by being published at almost exactly the same time in Australasian Drama Studies. Apart from this, Playmarket has done a great service to New Zealand theatre with this cleanly designed collection of scripts. They show a range of styles and concerns, and the chronology stretching from 1972 to 1988 gives a sense of the historical development which has taken place.

Both Rore Hapipi’s 1976 Death of the Land and Hone Tuwhare’s 1985 In the Wilderness without a Hat deal with the physical presence of Maori traditional values. The first gives a powerful theatrical representation of how the Maori voice has been marginalised. Rosie stammeringly inarticulate in the face of the alienation of the land; Wehi almost silent except in one surprising coup-de-théatre where he turns and addresses the audience; the ghostly Rongo invisible and inaudible to the Pakeha characters, his despair masked by self-deprecating and cynical humour; and in the background, unseen by anyone, the distant wailing of a Maori presence lamenting the loss of the whenua. The script might seem pessimistic, but can be read as part of the general call to action which had led to the Land March in 1975.

The four later plays seem less directly concerned with questions of the land, though the Land March recurs as a potent symbol of the successful assertion of the Maori voice. Pakeha values and actions become less of a threat in the scripts from the ’80s. In the Wilderness without a Hat, the most explicitly theatrical of the five, focuses more prominently on divisions within Maori society. These are settled by the living presence of ancestors who begin as carved figures but later intervene as actors with a cheeky humour when the conflicts become intolerable. The European deus ex machina has been successfully appropriated here.

The two plays by women playwrights are both more individualist, with a painful sense of alienation mixed with a strong yearning for resolution. Rena Owen’s Te Awa i Tahuti is removed from New Zealand and its conflicts almost altogether. Set in a British prison and straightforward in its structure, it shows a woman slowly coming to terms with the traumas of her past – especially her relationship with a drunken father – with the dual help of an English social worker and the memory of her own Maoritanga which she retains through song and poi.

Riwia Brown’s Roimata, its style more obviously influenced by television than the others, shows a naturalistic picture of modern urban Maori life through the eyes of a young woman from the country. It is a tough, unromanticised view, informed more by issues relating to gender than race. Most of the men are portrayed as sexist and exploitative, and the only Pakeha character is a downtrodden woman aptly called Mouse. Within the naturalistic style no ‘supernatural’ forces can be represented directly, but the countryside itself becomes a symbol of healing, away from the destructive pressures of the city. At the end Roimata plans to return there to have the baby she has conceived, and she will take her urbanised half-sister with her.

John Broughton’s Te Hara, a short play reminiscent of Synge’s Riders to the Sea, returns us to a world of potent traditional elements where dreams and the violation of tapu signal the presence of forces beyond the everyday and outside the scope of naturalism. Technically unpretentious, it could still pack a punch given strong performances.

This volume is only the beginning. Maori plays are now being performed but not yet adequately recorded. Of the 47 plays listed in the appendix it is not clear how many are readily available in printed form. My guess would be about ten, most of those by Renée. And to my knowledge there still exists very little analysis of what has happened so far – this will have to start now if the whakapapa of Maori theatre is to be preserved and passed on to succeeding generations. Historical studies, interviews with playwrights, actors, directors and audiences, locating and collecting photos, videos, programmes, posters and what has been written in newspapers and magazines – there’s a mountain of work to do. Roma Potiki’s introduction to this book and her perceptive and provocative article in Australasian Drama Studies (April 1991) are major contributions.

This anthology, a collection of rare and valuable flowers combining history, theatre and scholarship, provides glimpses of what has already been and what is yet to come.


Adrian Kiernander was born in New Zealand and is now a Senior Lecturer in Drama at the University of Queensland. In the past he has taught at both Auckland and Victoria Universities, and in 1984 he directed the opera ‘Waituhi’ by Ross Harris and Witi Ihimaera.


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