Whānau ties [by Matt Baker]
Family is an intrinsically universal concept, one to which all – regardless of (and sometimes in spite of) one’s upbringing – can relate. Instigated by the ultimate qualifier of death, Mitch Tawhi Thomas explores this concept, and the dynamics surrounding it, in the world premiere of the appropriately titled Hui. Said dynamics are illustrated through easily identifiable Kiwi characters, who, both in writing and performance, successfully avoid any sense of stereotypical portrayal. Yet, while the dialogue purged by these characters builds incrementally throughout the play to reach boiling point, it never quite reaches a coup de grâce.
In this respect, Stephen Butterworth as Tina comes closest to a full understanding of – and ability to express – the kernel of the idea within the writing. Butterworth chews up and spits out Thomas’ dialogue with rancor, but avoids dividing himself from the audience in the process.
Xavier Horan has a wonderfully even-toned quality to his voice as Pita, but the cracks in his character come out slightly too readily. Once he reaches the point of no return his anger is acutely focussed on Butterworth, without any sense of unjustified or overplayed force.
Vinnie Bennett is instantly recognisable in his role as Tamati, which he infuses with strong physicality, subtle mannerisms, and well-facilitated emotional depth. However, as the tension mounts, Bennett seems to hold back (as an actor, not a character), and doesn’t allow his gestures to reverberate to their full extent. This is especially evident with the arrival of Nazreen Tangku, played by Cassie Baker. Baker’s own physicality is exaggerated with extraneous hand gesturing, and her Singaporean-Australian accent results in some incredibly odd tonal qualities and line deliveries. Thomas has written a comedic character here, but the real comedy comes from the tragedy of the situation, and tragedy cannot be played as one-noted as it was.
Respect must be given to Maaka Pepene, whose constant on-stage presence as the deceased Wahie patriarch, Bob, induces moments of both comedy and tragedy from the emotionally charged ensemble. This presence is magnified by George, played by Tola Newberry, who literally echoes the voice of his father. Newberry maintains a theatrical consistency, which is in slight conflict to his character, but necessary for his contribution to the play, and it is his quiet asides that give him full dimension.
Rachel House manages Thomas’ stage direction well considering the amount of prop work required. The fighting, one of the most difficult things for a director to choreograph, is also executed without a sense of contrived deliberateness. House harnesses the strength of the ensemble to produce the maximum amount of potential afforded in Thomas’ text, proof in support of their congruous creative relationship established over 10 years prior.
Sean Coyle’s realistic set design provides a complete sense of place, from the translucent walls to the cache of childhood belongings, although the actors sometimes find themselves staring into the middle-distance in what is presumably a wall one-foot from their faces. Costume, by Emma Ransley, is equally detailed and visually separates the four children with great distinction, and also allows for a lovely opening sequence. Lighting, by Jennifer Lal, brilliantly accentuates the focus to the action on stage, and Leon Radojkovic’s sound design adds to the realism of the piece. Interlude music gives a nostalgic lightness and release to the tension built during scenes.
While the conflict and the finale of the play are both dramatically agreeable, there is a lack of catharsis. The execution of the final moment is indeed a surprise, though its arrival is not thanks to Newberry’s silent actions, which allow the audience to arrive at the point moments before him, but a few more hints towards the specifics of the final action injected into the script earlier might have provided stronger pathos. In saying that, there is no need for a yellow ribbon to be tied around this play (and nor is there one), because that’s not how life works. It is a testament to Thomas’ understanding of the complications of relationships, and that there is no choice in who your family is, only in how you deal with them.
Hui is presented by Silo and plays as part of the Auckland Arts Festival at Q until Sat 23. More details see Auckland Arts Festival.