[Leap, Climb, Slip]
Kororāreka, the hell hole of the Pacific: once feared and revered by sailors across the high seas, a hot spot for mayhem, trade, and a clashing of cultures. Those who are familiar with New Zealand history may be aware of Kororāreka and the sailors, pirates and whalers who docked there, but less known are the stories of the women who entered the belly of the beast and what their lives entailed. Red Leap, together with writer Paolo Rotondo, have come together to tell the tale of Maggie Flynn, an Irish convict who tricked her away into the arms of whaling Captain and discovered a life upon the shores of Aotearoa.
It’s incredibly exciting to see an all-female cast led by a female director telling a female story, and all the women on stage impress with their own strengths. Victoria Abbott is a powerful performer who takes on the role of the young Maggie, bringing forth fiery energy into the character and showing off her physical prowess. In fact, all the cast are physically impressive, hanging tirelessly from the set, running and jumping, and singing and dancing their way through the full hour and forty minutes of the production. Miriama McDowell is enigmatic as the Maori Chief, and the chemistry between Abbott and McDowell is electrifying and tangible. The storyline revolving around the chief, his sister, and Maggie is the most exciting and interesting part of the play, so it’s a shame it doesn’t last for so long. The melding of Maori and Irish culture is a fascinating journey that Kororāreka flirts with, but a deeper examination is lacking. Alison Bruce’s impressive physicality and obvious joy in performing brings exuberant life to her characters (dead and alive), and Bruce keeps the mood light and playful. Similarly, Karina George has an infectious energy that brings alive the characters she plays. Finally, Awhina Rose Ashby is a powerful presence on stage, particularly as the Maori Chief’s sister, and she works the power dynamic between herself and Maggie wonderfully. Since Maggie is an Irish convict and her crew a motley rabble of British convicts, most of the cast dabble in Irish and Scottish accents which are mostly well done, however, George’s Scottish accent slips frequently and proves to be very distracting.
The use of props is incredibly imaginative and provides powerful imagery. As Maggie embarks on her quest, her overly long flowing skirts throw reference to the vast oceans she travels and paints a striking image of femininity, later the exaggerated rope of Maggie’s hair serves to highlight her struggle and servitude to her Maori captor. The carefree nature of prop use keeps the scenes fun and fresh and the casual discarding of props keeps the pace fast and loose for the first hour, however, the recurring image of a baby made of rope becomes a little a repetitive. The main set piece is an inventive use of scaffolding and wheels, creating the whaling ship out of a box frame that towers over the stage. It’s a movable jungle gym that provides a playground for the actors to work with.
What stands out about this production is the whimsical nature of the storytelling and the vibrancy of action. This play is like an adventure book you cannot put down for fear of coming back to your bland reality. From the gorgeous choral music, to eye-catching design, to the energy on stage the show, it all, for the most part, grabs your attention and pulls you into a fantastical world that seems like a distant echo from the New Zealand we know today.
Unfortunately, the creativity of this production presents some areas of concern. Water is used frequently to demonstrate many actions and events; however, it ultimately becomes more of a health and safety concern than an impressive spectacle. At one point Abbot slips and falls, and there appeared to be no barrier to prevent anyone slipping right into the audience. The stage is visibly soaked. Considering the huge piece of movable set this is incredibly concerning, especially as the actors on stage are only given a small musical interlude to mop up the remaining water. Hopefully, after opening night this aspect was reconsidered and rectified as it shows poor consideration for actor and audience safety.
Towards the end of the play the show begins to drag and possible endings come and go until we finally reach our conclusion, and the end lets down the magic of the first hour. We see an older Maggie (Bruce), now the madam of her own brothel, struggling to retain her place and status in her territory. Despite the enticing premise, the execution leaves much to be desired. Whilst it’s clear that Maggie intends for her “girls” to take advantage of the visiting sailors, the performance of the sex workers comes off as mocking and paints the women as mere sheep to her bidding. It’s a shame when the reality of these women’s lives was a much grittier and harsher way of living that deserves to be recognised and honoured instead of mocked, despite the laughs it may provoke. Unfortunately, the momentum that the chaos and fun of earlier scenes builds up fizzles out and what should be a more poignant ending feels flat.
Kororāreka has some way to go in its construction but this impressive creation still packs a punch and its style of storytelling is beautiful to experience. It will be interesting to see how the production moves and adapts across the multiple venues as Red Leap tours across the Northland, and the response it may gain from audiences outside of Auckland. With any luck, the show will return to Auckland after it’s touring season pushed to new and exciting places.
Kororāreka: The Ballad of Maggie Flynn plays at Q until 17 June. Details see Red Leap.