Awatea Shines Brightly [by Sharu Delilkan]
You knew the writing was on the wall the minute you walked into the theatre. I’m of course referring to the beautifully chalked letters that 'panoramically' filled the backdrop of the entire stage. So dramatic, intriguing and utterly effective was this device that you could not help reading some of the letters while the show was going on.
But on to the show.
Having produced both The Pohutukawa Tree and The End Of The Golden Weather, Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Awatea completes Bruce Mason's classic trilogy of powerful New Zealand dramas. And it is everything it promises to be – thrilling, heart-wrenching, morally tough - a fiercely realistic study of betrayal and disillusionment.
Awatea, based in and around Ngati Porou country, is the story about a remote township of Omoana that revolves around their ‘hero’ Dr Matt Paku (Te Kohe Tuhaka) who left the East Coast and now owns a successful practice in Auckland. Proudest of all is his old, blind father Werihe (George Henare), who basks in this success via his son's letters, read to him by the no-nonsense local postmistress Emma Gilhooly (Geraldine Brophy). Every New Year's Eve, Matt comes home and the whole community celebrates. But things are different this year: Gilhooly has devastating news which she must keep from old Werihe at all costs.
Going back to Tony Rabbit’s amazingly effective set, the steeply raked stage, reminiscent of The Pohutukawa Tree, made you feel that the furniture could slide into the audience at any moment. It was very successful in keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the show. This was further accentuated by the house lights, that were not totally turned down for a majority of the show.
The costumes by Nic Smillie were absolutely perfectly pitched – understated yet effective.
Brophy’s character Gilhooly is the linchpin between the Maori and Pakeha worlds, city life and rural NZ as well as the father-son relationship (Werihe and Dr Paku). Expertly played by Brophy, her affection for the blind old man is heartwarming and reveals many touching moments. She showed great latitude in her ability to go from being a hard-nosed Kiwi battleaxe one minute to showing her vulnerable, soft side the next. Her performance is perfectly complemented by Henare’s flawless acting, which is truly inspired.
Andrew Grainger’s portrayal of the local Sergeant Jameson is spot on as always, as is Carl Bland’s as Detective Inspector Brett. Both represent the complicated Paheka world of rules, numbers and logic, while also showing surprising empathy in their dealing with Maori traditions particularly mana.
Flirty Tina, played by Cian Elyse White who makes her ATC debut, is saucily done while the rest of the main characters – Nancy Brunning (Ana), Scotty Cotter (Tahi), Nicola Kawana (Pera) and Rob Mokaraka (Kani) – display great acting talent.
I particularly loved the musicality of the show, that gave Awatea its unique Maori flavour, thanks for John Gibson's fabulous musical score. This marvelous melodic experience was elevated by White’s solo performance for Matt’s homecoming celebrations.
ATC artistic director Colin McColl’s astute direction is demonstrated with much of the off-stage action providing a convincing backdrop for the on-stage antics.
Movement on stage at times seems a little limiting, which may be due to the steep camber of the stage, but the action keeps on moving with a number of plot twists and turns. The play uses wonderful metaphors of light and darkness, age and youth as well as pride and responsibility to tell its multi-layered tale.
The audience certainly showed its appreciation with the standing ovation and a spontaneous waiata from the Ngati Porou members of the audience led by actor Maaka Pohatu. The Ngati Porou anthem Paikea was indeed an apt response to the amazing performance, which needless to say left ne'er a dry eye.
On a wet and windy evening in Auckland, Awatea certainly lit a shining torch to “hold back the darkness”.
Awatea plays at The Maidment until 11 August. More details see Auckland Theatre Company.
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by John Smythe.
James Wenley followed Awatea's rehearsals, and blogged from the rehearsal room at the ATC Blog.