Raw, real and rewarding [by Sharu Delilkan]
John Broughton’s epic one-man play Michael James Manaia (MJM) machine guns you with emotion right from the get-go.
I can safely say this is the most raw and rewarding play we’ve seen for a long time.
Our friends at Q had warned us that the show had had a profound effect on audiences. To which we replied arrogantly “We’re hardened theatregoers” – and boy were we wrong and we now can confess that we’re not as hardened as we thought.
But it all made sense when I realised that the show was being presented by Taki Rua Productions, who are known for challenging audiences with their unconventional and unpredictable productions.
The story takes us from a carefree youth growing up in a small New Zealand town – idyllic apart from a fractured father-son relationship – through adolescence, war, love and family.
After premiering at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre in 1991, it was a privilege to be able to see the new vision of this heart-wrenching one-man show that has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival and across the globe.
Te Kohe Tuhaka aka TK (Awatea, The Brothers Size) really shows his versatility taking us through multiple characters, with zigzags of emotion and experience.
Daniel Williams’ simple set and props, of two platforms and a stick is fabulous. The well thought out design works superbly, both dramatic and utilitarian, which allows the tale to be told without detracting from the actor’s genius. Lisa Maule’s lighting design along with the AV are used intelligently, greatly enhancing the experience – none more than the projected army instructions on how to patrol in the jungles of Vietnam.
Complementing this is sound designer Maaka McGregor’s brilliant varied soundscape that goes from subtle to ‘absolutely jump out of your skin blaring’ and adds drama and atmosphere to every scene. I particularly liked the choice of tracks such as Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head by Andy Williams, when we first walked in. Speaking of old music, I found the selection of hits that punctuated the whole script quite fascinating. Songs included I Believe, Knock Three Times (Tony Orlando and Dawn), Proud Mary (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Haere Mai Everything is Kapai, Joy to the World (Three Dog Night), Green Green Grass of Home (Tom Jones) and Freddy Fender’s Wasted Days & Wasted Nights.
The tone of the play is that of a struggle to overcome many obstacles but doesn’t come across as complaining or whinging – just ultimately that of resignation to disappointment and betrayal of an innocent Maori boy. It’s depressing, but more in a haunting way than a saga of misery. Numerous humorous moments are sprinkled throughout to keep the flow, but without distracting from the drama of the story.
One positive outcome is a son’s greater understanding of his father which brings the play nicely full circle.
TK’s physicality and ability to change moods at the drop of a hat was nothing short of astonishing. The writing is long, a 100-minute single part play, which makes TK’s flawless rendition even more astounding. I literally take my hat off to TK and director Nathaniel Lees for the riveting performance which unravels the experiences of Michael James Manaia with such precision.
Normally in a play that long at least one person would toddle off for a toilet break, but nobody moved, nobody stirred, nobody shuffled in their seats for the whole duration, not wanting to miss a second of the performance.
Never have I seen an audience so stunned and subdued when leaving a theatre – I think they were still in shock.
As we walked to the Q Bar our mates took one look at our faces and said “I told you so”. To which we merely nodded, as we were totally speechless.
Michael James Manaia is not for the faint-hearted but as I said it’s probably the most raw and rewarding play I have seen in a long, long time.
Michael James Manaia is presented by Taki Rua Productions and Q and plays at The Loft, Q until 15 Sept. More information see Taki Rua Productions