The play’s the thing, Victor Rodger

Southern Stage
John Broughton, Oscar Kightley and Erolia Ifopo, Gary Henderson, and Carl Nixon
Playmarket, $40.00,
ISBN 9780908607662

These four plays all have a connection to the mainland, via either their setting, their writers or, in most cases, both. However, it must be said that one of the writers here is a filthy JAFA (Just Another Fucking Aucklander). As a quartet what, if anything, do they tell us about the South?

It’s difficult to find a connective tissue outside of their collective Southern linkage: a Māori Vietnam vet reveals his life story in a blistering stream of consciousness; a Māori teenage boy and a Samoan teenage girl battle culture clash as a comic latter day Romeo and Juliet; a young boy creates the map of his life as a small community in the mid-1960s reacts to the arrival of a new teacher in town; a grieving Pākehā father struggles with grief and anger after an unimaginable loss. 

Perhaps one of the takeaways from this collection is that the writers –  Māori, Samoan and  Pākehā – indicate that the South Island is potentially more racially diverse than some might suspect. Gender-wise, however, it’s a decidedly more homogenous affair: with one exception the writers are male, and that’s certainly reflected in the female characters, who are almost uniform in their support of a male-driven narrative. The plays here span 1991-2007. Reading them chronologically certainly provides a compelling overview of South Island writings from the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Michael James Manaia (1991) by John Broughton (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tahu; Hastings-born/Dunedin- based) is the most visceral of the quartet, certainly the most urgent. The language in this one-hander is muscular, bursting with energy that jumps off the page from the start and demands your attention as Michael tells his story:

Michael James Manaia
That’s me
Otherwise known as Mick.
Mick the Stick.
Sometimes it was Mick the Dick,
Or Mick the Prick
Dependin’ on who me so-called mates were.

At one stage, Michael sings a familiar refrain from a Kiwi classic – “Haere mai, everything is ka pai” – but throughout the play it’s movingly clear that everything is far from ka pai for the tortured Mr Manaia.

In the first half, we learn about Michael’s competitive and physically abusive father and Michael’s ill-fated younger brother. In the second half, Michael relates his brutal tour of duty in the Vietnam War and his difficult return home where he is startled to realise that the one thing missing is “a real fucking enemy”.

The Vietnam section of the play strongly recalls Tim O’Brien’s Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection The Things They Carried, and indeed the things that Michael metaphorically carries serve as the beating heart of the play. It’s only through Michael’s experiences in Vietnam that he comes to gain insight into his father, who is himself a war veteran, an insight that leads to one of the play’s most haunting moments: a silent haka which invokes the silent scream famously featured in the climax of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Michael James Manaia may be the oldest of the four plays, but for my money it’s the one most likely to withstand the test of time. As it reaches its devastating conclusion, it is like a taiaha to the gut.

In their introduction to Romeo and Tusi (1996), Oscar Kightley (the Samoan-born aforementioned JAFA) and Erolia Ifopo (a Christchurch-born, Wellington-based Samoan) caution their readers about expecting anything too highbrow: “We hope that you enjoy this text and ask that you not take it too seriously. It was made as a fun outdoor family theatre show. That’s the vibe.” It’s especially good advice for those unfamiliar with the brutality that lies at the heart of Samoan humour: Romeo and Tusi is full of punchlines that involve suicide, murder, child abuse and dismemberment. On paper, it may seem horrific. Me? I found it hilarious. As a Samoan myself, this is recognisably by us and primarily for us: humour that gleefully traffics in the ridiculous and the offensive. If others can leave their modern-day sensibilities at the door and enter into the spirit of these avowedly un-PC proceedings, they might find they are in for an absolute treat.

The twist on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is simple: Anaru (Romeo) is  Māori; neighbour Tusi (Juliet) is Samoan. Or, as Tusi’s mother so succinctly puts it: “Tusi you are a coconut. He’s a kumara.” The course of true love never did run smooth, especially with mums like these: Tusi’s mum is convinced their Māori neighbour’s garden “is full of  Māoriwana”; Anaru’s mum doesn’t want her son hanging out with “those stinky islanders”. This is culture clash that gleefully and unapologetically traffics in stereotypes. But, unlike the more celebrated Niu Sila (which Kightley co-wrote with Dave Armstrong), the piss-taking isn’t one-sided – here the insults are evenly spread. Crucially, the audience is invited to laugh with and not at their targets.

Even though Romeo and Tusi is not the most complex show ever written, as acknowledged in the writers’ note, there are pleasing flashes of political humour in amongst all the lowbrow hijinks, including a skinhead punchline – the one line that truly belies Romeo and Tusi’s South Island origins. Could a production of Romeo and Tusi work in today’s #woke climate of outrage culture? I say: hell, yes.

In the beginning of Peninsula (2005) by Gary Henderson (Ngati Pākehā, Geraldine-born, Auckland-based), Gordon, the new teacher in town, explains to a classroom of startled children that they are all sitting on top of what was once an active volcano. Henderson seems to be setting up an expectation that the play itself will eventually reach something of a volcanic explosion. It doesn’t. Peninsula is many things, but it isn’t about high drama. The end of act one doesn’t even try to end on what is a traditionally dramatic high-point, leaving an audience eager to know what happens next.

But, despite its decidedly low-key vibe, Peninsula remains compelling throughout, a slow-burn of a play that manages to hold your attention, despite not having an especially pressing question at its core. At the heart of the play is Michael, a young boy in mid-1960s Banks Peninsula, whose prime passion is mapping out his surroundings; but the plot, as such, revolves around reactions to new teacher Gordon’s arrival and the subsequent exposure of his secret – a secret that isn’t terribly hard to guess.

The power of Peninsula comes from Henderson’s spare dialogue, steeped in wonderfully recognisable 1960s language and cultural references, plus a strong line in mystery and tension. Whether he is dealing with men with women, boys with girls, children with adults or any variation of these, it’s all pitch perfect: the casual racism, the bullying, the sexism. (One of the strongest sequences involves a male character unexpectedly slapping a female character in a scene that moves from shocking domestic violence into banal domesticity.) Peninsula is the cleanest, most precise of the four plays. Not a word seems extraneous, either in the dialogue or in the stage directions, which do a terrific job of conveying the complex soundscapes and visuals, that were clearly an integral part of the production. Of all these plays, this is the one with the strongest sense of time and of place and also with the strongest theatrical sensibility.

Finally we have The Raft (2007) by Carl Nixon (Christchurch-born and -based, Ngati Pākehā.). Nixon’s fiction includes one of my all-time favourite short stories (“Like Wallpaper”) and what I consider to be the most problematic book in modern Kiwi literature, Settlers’ Creek.

In his introduction, Nixon writes of The Raft’s opening night: “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house … .” Actually, there were at least two, and both belonged to me. At the time, I felt like I’d already seen a stronger version of this play of parental grief and anger when it was called Purapurawhetu (1997) as written by Briar Grace Smith. Like The Raft, it dealt with the grief of a lost child, but through a Māori lens.

The Raft is most certainly enacted through a Pākehā lens: this is the only play which deliberately denotes the race – Pākehā – of its cast. The protagonist, Mark, is still stuck in grief over his son’s drowning death two years beforehand and consumed with anger at his father, Jack, since his son drowned on Jack’s watch. Long-suffering wife Tonia has brought Mark to a bach, somewhere on the West Coast, in a last-ditch effort to save their crumbling marriage. She and her mother-in-law, Shirley (also long-suffering), have plotted for Mark’s father Jack to be there, too, so that the two men can heal their rift.

The death of a child and its effects on the parents left behind have a long history in the arts. The celebrated film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now” is one of the better-known examples; the same year The Raft premièred, the Pulitzer Prize for drama went to Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, a play which also explores life after a child’s death.

The Raft certainly has a strong premise, is full of inherent conflict, and yet I can’t say there is one moment, either in the watching of it or the reading of it, when I actually felt genuinely moved. Tonia delivers what is for me the most shocking line of the play, when she discusses her son’s death with Shirley and how she always used to worry about his safety before his death: “It sounds awful but for a small part of me it was almost a relief to know that the worst had happened and I didn’t have to worry anymore.” The line is very telling, because The Raft is a play which is absolutely interested in exploring male grief. As such, it also deals with toxic masculinity, even though the play predates its now-common usage. Nixon presents us with a father and son who desperately need to talk to each other, but initially can’t – or perhaps don’t know how to.

Nixon certainly has a nice droll line of humour when the men eventually and tentatively begin to open up about their feelings:

JACK: Shouldn’t we … talk … more?
MARK: Christ, Dad, we’re not women.

But, for the most part, The Raft wears its grief-stricken heart on its sleeve, and Mark’s refusal to move on verges on the frustrating. When Shirley finally shrugs off her warm Milo-making-mum mask and rounds on Mark for being a bit of a plonker, the play finally – but only briefly – comes to life.

Southern Stage is the latest in the New Zealand Play Series published by Playmarket, the New Zealand agency for playwrights. A valuable resource, to be sure.

Victor Rodger is a Christchurch-born and -raised playwright of Samoan and Scottish descent, whose plays include Black Faggott, My Name is Gary Cooper and Sons.

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