[Grief and Belonging]
It’s a hard thing, to write something from tragedy and history, knowing that a lineage of survivors will be reviewing your best attempts to honour them.
Directed by Chris Molloy, and written and produced Naomi Bartley, Te Waka Huia responds to New Zealand’s worst road incident: the 1963 Brynderwyn bus crash. It follows an interpretation of historical tragedy, through the weaving pathways of 3 main characters – Emily, Isaac and Pahi, and the connections they forge with each other through the physical site of a rusty bus, left behind in an abandoned paddock.
In spite of this sombre context, Te Waka Huia is joyful. As we’re ushered in, the cast break into waiata, a chorus of voices welcoming us into the theatre. This sets the tone for a jovially musical night against a script that is, at times, harsh to its characters.
The set, by Andrew Denton, is simple but impressive, with a wooden model of this bus serving as the focal point of action and event. I found the playfulness of this warm and exciting, with different points of entry for the actors to engage with. At times the central element of the bus and its inhabitants felt a little too heavy handed, with both the context, script and set continually pushing certain moments to the audience. Sometimes it felt like we were guided to the answer too easily, before anyone on stage had the time to give pause or figure it out for themselves.
Regardless, the setting of the bus serves as a nice motif to query what exactly a home might represent. For the young character Emily (Chye-Ling Huang), home is both danger and retreat, an envisioned space to belong to when she cannot find a sense of safety. For Pahi (Junior Misomoa), home is people, residual echoes of the past that still ring in his head and leave him wandering old haunting grounds for meaning. For Jack (Isaac Te Reina), home is his iwi, home is his town that grounds but stifles him, but that never seems to break routine long enough for him to build momentum.
The acting in this play is commendable, with vibrant performances from all three. The characters themselves could have felt like stereotypes but were filled out well. What stands out for me is a really strong choreography of movement and aptitude of body language that fills in for subtext.
There are some delicious moments in the script that deftly reflect ongoing political relations, as simple as Pahi flicking a cursory glance through the high school “Comprehensive Guide to New Zealand History”, and waggling the wobbly thin pages around with an eyebrow raised, or Jack’s remark, “Well what is a Māori supposed to look like?”.
I like that Bartley and Molloy leave us with loose ends. Te Waka Huia is direct and successful in its aims. It completes the hardest task of all, which is to honour survivors of a tragedy in real time while also entertaining its own story.
What I left the venue pondering wasn’t the points to nitpick but rather an upheld value of commemoration and celebration. The use of live instrumentals on stage feels like a way to return us to something bigger – tales around the fire. The humble notion of including actors and extras on stage (sitting to the side) while the main action plays out means this story extends far beyond mere lines or bodies on stage. In actuality, the story reaches further, and doesn’t end until long after the play does – we break bread and share kai while real survivors and their offspring give their thanks.
Overall, Te Waka Huia is an invitation to research deeper; a well crafted story on communal means to grieve and belong.
Te Waka Huia played at Te Pou Theatre 17-19th August, and in September continues to tour Auckland and upper North Island. Details see the play’s Facebook Page.