REVIEW: Manawa (The Basement)


Do the Time [by James Wenley]


“New Zealand tales great care of birds and trees and it is almost a capital offence to cut a branch off a tree, particularly a Pohutakwa. Sadly, the justice system doesn’t take care of vulnerable babies and young women. Haven’t we got something wrong here?” – Letter to the Editor, NZ Herald. 23.10.2012

Everyone has an opinion on the justice system. How do we balance the rights of the victim with the rights of the criminal? What are just sentences for crimes committed? How does the system deal with chronic offenders?

Manawa by Jamie McCaskill and directed by Regan Taylor dives with heart and mind into the fraught terrain inside the prison cell, producing a fine work of drama that is gripping, surprising funnily, and leaves its audience with much to think about. It is incredibly exciting to see an ‘issues’ based theatre work that confidently engages with such vital contemporary social and political themes.

Manawa fascinatingly juxtaposes the crimes and treatment of two inmates who share a cell in a New Zealand prison. Mau Vaiga (Natano Keno), a recent arrival in New Zealand from Somoa, is at the centre of a media storm after killing a Kakapo. Jimmy King (Jamie McCaskill), New Zealand’s ‘youngest murder’ is back in the familiar confines of prison after exposing his genitals to a media interviewer (an overt nod to Bailey Junior Kurariki). They share the same lawyer, Waimanea Huia (Kali Kopae), who tells media that “anyone can change”. The play tracks their two cases, expands on what bought them there, and the growing bond between King and Vaiga.

Musician Simon Donald entertains us with excellent Bluesy songs on guitar prior to the show, and remains in the corner for the rest of the play, occasionally providing ‘media reports’ or joining in the action when another body is needed; it’s a device that helps position the play as a type of fable. There’s a clever theatrical fluidity to the storytelling – McCaskill and Keno play the Judges of each other’s cases as well as other roles when the play requires.

We are told much about their main characters when they first enter the stage – tightly populated with a hard metal bunk bed and blue corrugated iron; Keno’s Vaiga shuffles on, his focus inward. McCaskill strides on, energy expanding, he is happy to be there. The play does a remarkable thing early on: it gets us to laugh with convicted murderer King. And man, do we laugh. McCaskill completely sells King’s rogue charm so we are won over by him. Keno’s is a study that slowly reveals Vaiga, a deep soul caught in a much wider power play. Going beyond the ‘black and white’ media categorisations, the play invites us to accept the humanity of the Bailey Kurariki’s of this world.

The lawyer, Waimanea Huia, is not all who she appears either. While thematically suitable, the plot point in question stretches credibility and detracts from the bigger story, underdeveloped amongst the wider material.

After bringing us to a place where we feel we understand the men, the unexpected ending is a real punch in the guts and the play’s thematic masterstroke.

Manawa succeeds as a drama, a satire and a morality fable, delivering laughs amongst many layers of painful injustices. A play for anyone who likes to engage with local theatre that is complex and thought-provoking. Do not miss it.

Manawa is presented by Tikapa Productions and plays at The Basement until 3 Nov. Details see THE BASEMENT

SEE ALSO: review by Tamati Patuwa

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