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By Witi Ihimaera
Presented by Taki Rua
Courage and loyalty is tested in this new play by Witi Ihimaera
“Once they fought each other, now shoulder to shoulder they fight together”
Two generations go to war while a third fights a battle to keep her family at home. Waru Mataira and his two sons Tai and Rangi volunteer to represent the Maori iwi of Mataira Mountain in the New Zealand Native Contingent to Gallipoli. Under the guidance of their Pakeha leader Alec Campbell, they join the battle on the western front as part of the newly titled Pioneer Battalion where their courage is tested and so too are their loyalties.
Taki Rua Productions presents the World Premiere of All Our Sons, a ground-breaking play by Witi Ihimaera.
WARU MATAIRA: Rob Mokaraka
GRANDMA MATAIRA: Grace Ahipene-Hoete
PETER BUCK: Taungaroa Emile
WAIRUA: Kereama Te Ua
ALEC CAMPBELL: Errol Anderson
TAI MATAIRA: Joe Dekkers-Reihana
RANGI MATAIRA: Puriri Kōria
ARIHIA MATAIRA: Kali Kopae
ERIN CAMPBELL: Moana Ete
MERI MATAIRA: Amanda Noblett
Assistant Director: Hōhepa Waitoa
Stage Manager: Leigh Minarapa
Lighting Designer: Jen Lal
Set Designer: Wai Mihinui
Sound Designer: Maaka McGregor
AV Designer: Jordan Beresford
Costume Designer/Production Manager: Moana Davey
Kapa Haka Choreography: Kereama Te Ua
Tohunga Te Reo me ōna Tikanga: Ngāmoni Huata, Hōhepa Waitoa
Publicist: Sally Woodfield
Taki Rua: Tānemahuta Gray, Grace Ahipene-Hoete, Jordan Richardson, Liam Goulter
Board Members: Tama Kirikiri (Chair), Trish Stevenson, Jamie Ferguson, Simon Garrett, Adrian Wagner, Angus Hodgson
Wellington Theatre Awards
Most Original Production– All Our Sons – Taki Rua Productions / Circa Theatre
Actor of the Year– Rob Mokaraka – All Our Sons
Director of the Year– Nathaniel Lees – All Our Sons
Production of the Year– All Our Sons – Taki Rua Productions / Circa Theatre
Lighting Designer of the Year– Jen Lal – All Our Sons
Sound Designer of the Year– Maaka McGregor – All Our Sons
Big winners on the night were All Our Sons by Witi Ihimaera and produced by Taki Rua Productions and Circa Theatre – taking home six awards for Lighting Design (Jennifer Lal), Sound Design (Maaka McGregor), Original Production, Actor (Rob Mokaraka), Director (Nathaniel Lees) and Production of the Year.
Reviewed by John Smythe, 7 Nov 2015
Drawn from the hard-to-find stories of the New Zealand Native Contingent which served at Gallipoli, All Our Sons distils the essence of a universal experience in a uniquely Māori way. In just 70 minutes this Nathaniel Lees-directed Taki Rua production immerses us in a visceral evocation of that terrible war, taking us into its heart and leaving us with plenty to ponder. This act of giving is also designed to receive more than the well-deserved standing ovation that greets its premiere at Circa Theatre.
In his programme note, playwright Witi Ihimaera reveals “it’s about bringing home the kawe mate” which the Te Aka Māori Dictionary defines as a“mourning ceremony at another marae subsequent to the tangihanga and burial – relatives of the deceased, especially someone of importance, visit as a group the marae of communities.” Next year, as well as touring to the major cities, the plan is to take All Our Sons to marae and town halls throughout the country, where the performance will set the stage for local communities to “honour their tūpuna, Māori and Pākehā, by bringing photos and recalling their personal memories.”
While this opportunity is not afforded Circa’s dignitary-sprinkled opening night audience, many of us bring a personal perspective to our engagement with the work. My maternal grandfather survived Passchendaele only to be shot by a sniper near Polygon Wood so my primary response to this year’s centenary commemorations has been anger and sadness at the way my mother was denied her father, and vice versa. One of his brothers died at Gallipoli, another was gassed at Messines while the one who had seemed to come through relatively unscathed ended his days in a military hospital haunted by unseen demons.
I should add I’m directly related on my mother’s side to a Colonel of the 58th Regiment (active in the 1840s) and related by marriage of a second cousin to Witi Ihimaera. But rather than recuse myself from reviewing this I see my connections to the play from a Pākehā perspective to be relevant to its purpose, and Tamati Patuwai (in Wellington for this weekend’s Māori theatre hui) has agreed to review All Our Sons from his perspective when time permits. The dilemma of affiliations versus long term objectives are central to this play.
By embodying the dilemma and the anguish it generates in a character called Grandma Mataira, Ihimaera pays homage to Bruce Mason by enriching the whakapapa of The Pohutukawa Tree‘s Aroha Mataira who, forty years on, will be under pressure to sell the last scrap of ancestral land at Te Parenga and join those who have already gone to an East Coast settlement.
In the wake of the land confiscations that provoked the New Zealand Wars just forty-odd years before the outbreak of WWI, Ihimaera’s fictional East Coast iwi only has Mataira Mountain, near Campbelltown, left to their name. Now the men are being asked to join the NZ Expeditionary Force to fight alongside the British against enemies they’re never known. Grandma Mataira (Grace Ahipene-Hoete) is vehemently opposed but her son, Waru (Rob Mokaraka), sees this as a way for Māori to achieve equality with Pākehā.
Eventually her grandsons Tai (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) and Rangi (Puriri Kōria) will join up too, when conscription obliges them to – while those who refuse are thrown into prison. Their childhood war-play as they duck and dive in the aisles that bisect the three banks of seating that face the triangular performance space – “pow pow” : “pow pow” – neatly encapsulates the innocence they are soon to lose.
The central soldier relationship is between Waru and his best mate Alec Campbell (Errol Anderson) whose dad is Mayor of Campbelltown. Inevitably Alec is given a senior rank and for his sins he falls victim to survivor guilt. When he returns to the East Coast it is the spirit of Waru who tells him he must go to “Ma” on the marae to return the spirits of the dead to where they were born: a profoundly moving moment.
Speaking of spirits, a character called Wairua (Kereama Te Ua) is ever-present. Adorned in red and blue moko, he postures, dances, challenges and so often delights in the practice of war that I expect him to be called Tū-mata-uenga, auta of war (and humans). As someone commented after the show, a warrior race is always looking for the next fight, and this is the spirit he embodies.
In counterpoint Grandma Mataira is also ever-present, connecting the boys to their whenua and mauri.
The other Mataira women – Arihia (Kali Kopi) and Meri (Amanda Noblett) – remain to keep the whanau farm going. Moana Ete plays the majestic Erin Campbell, wife of the mayor. Taungaroa Emile makes brief bowler-hatted appearances as Peter Buck. Headwear is also judiciously used to indicate non-Māori characters, including those ever-desirable French women. White cloth and sticks are employed to manifest Ottomans and the transport of supplies – the sticks, and poi, being used at times to replicate gunfire.
The named characters, their relationships and stories, surface intermittently from the ebb and flow of karanga, waiata, mau rakāu and other kapa haka elements through which the whole ensemble dynamically evoke dimensions of the story that bypass our intellects and go straight to the heart, solar plexus and gut. No realistic depiction of the battle of Sari Bair – which preceded Chunuk Bair and should share equal space in our collective consciousness – could improve in the impact achieved by this mode of performance.
Thus Ihimaera and Lees eschew a dialogue-driven, linear dramaturgy in favour of a structure that swirls like a moko around its themes, moving forward and back in time, exploring objective and subjective realities, and defining its presence in both the positive and the negative. It is similar to opera, but less restricted by convention, in its ability to articulate the almost indefinable dimensions of human experience.
Traditional wartime songs, beautifully sung both in Māori and English, enhance the play and the solo voices of Kali Kopae and Moana Ete deserve special mention.
Wai Mihinui’s triangular in-the-round setting features an illuminated shoreline (referencing both Tologa Bay and Anzac Cove perhaps?) and piped rectangular archways wherein literal smoke screens capture projected images from very old newsreels followed by a sobering drift of countless white crosses (AV design by Jordan Beresford).
Maaka McGregor’s sound design blends seamlessly with the live sound elements and Moana Davey’s costume designs are hugely effective in their simplicity.
This play is called All OUR Sons because, as Ihimaera notes, “The New Zealand story is also the Canadian story, the Indian story, the Australian story. The Māori story … is also the native Canadian, Niuean, Aboriginal and kanak story – the story of every indigenous people who went to war – and we are telling it, not just for ourselves, but for them too.”
This production heralds an exceptional style of theatre in its making, its reason for being and its mode of presentation. The initial season is very brief – it ends next Saturday – so don’t delay if you’re in a position to book. When it goes on tour, I hope to catch it again.