REVIEW: Poropiti (The Basement)

Review by Nathan Joe

[Back to the Future]

Creators and performers Tola Newbery and Mara TK take us through the landscape of New Zealand’s colonial history from a Māori perspective. In what is essentially a poetic history lesson, using a fusion of movement and music, we are transported from the mythic conception of our land to our capitalist present.

It’s a multi-disciplinary work that remains remarkably restrained with its tools. Music is used carefully (both live and recorded), often opting for silence as much as song. And the vignettes contain such stillness that they resemble tableaus more than movement. Spoken text (both in Te Reo and English) is also minimal, often supporting the images rather than creating exposition.

The set is spare too, utilising immaculate lighting by Glen Ashworth to craft a sense of space. Each vignette is placed against a projected image in the backdrop, giving us a sense of the environment, or the historical or social context surrounding the scene. Occasionally the venue poses a few problems due to its length, the long-stretch favouring sight-lines from one side of the audience or the other, which doesn’t serve the ritualistic intimacy the performance demands.

As our duo channel the distant past and immediate present, they asks us to imagine, acknowledge and empathise with the characters we glimpse in these vignettes. Though they embody symbols more so than fully formed people, and present moments rather than a narrative, they succeed because they asks us to reflect rather than instruct us on what to think. What could be loaded and didactic is, instead, told simply and truly.

Some may find the pacing languorous, but each vignette gains cumulative power and poignancy, packing a subtle punch in its final moments. At barely an hour long, Poropiti offers a lot of food for thought, but it also refuses to rush itself, greatly rewarding patience.

Poropiti is rife with images full of quiet desperation: the creation of our land, conveyed with the simplest gesture; a man overlooking the vast ocean, waiting for an unknown ship; a korowai cloak swapped for a clean white shirt; and a depressingly familiar image to anyone who passes our Auckland city streets.

The inevitability and eventuality of colonisation looms over Poropiti like a dark cloud, but it’s offset by the stoic presence of its performers. Though it opens old wounds, every sinew reverberating with the pain of history, it’s not a pessimistic prophecy that Poropiti proposes. Not an image of violent resistance, but faith and hope that everything will be alright.

These prophets, perhaps like any good historians, show us a glimpse of the future by asking us to look back into our forgotten and buried pasts.

Poropiti plays until 24 June. Details see The Basement

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