Playing at The Court Theatre, the Ōtautahi debut of The Māori Sidesteps is a contemporary evolution of the Māori showband featuring performers Erroll Anderson (Ngā Puhi), Cohen Holloway (Ngāti Toa Rangatira), Regan Taylor (Ngāti Kahungunu – Te Arawa), Jamie McCaskill (Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Rangi, Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Tuwharetoa) and Jerome Leota.
The production riffs on classic songs from both Aotearoa and beyond; in between the performers energetically spoof the immediately recognisable schtick of reality television and other pop formats. The Sidesteps clearly enjoy presenting caricaturistic portraits of individuals from all walks of life. All five performers deserve accolades for their energetic commitment to all that the work demands of them; though Cohen Holloway deserves special mention for his riotous John Campbell and loose Nana.
The laughter and music is what carries the crowd through, but the show is really a noisy celebration of everything that makes Aotearoa the nation it is. This celebration necessarily includes reference to the nation’s violent colonial history and all that has resulted from it, asking both tangata whenua and tangata tiriti to question the past and our place in the present. The celebration also includes silly gags (the opera is a highlight, as is the very silly ‘ding-a-ling’ song), an ode to rugby, and an extensive list of individuals who’ve said or done things worth feeling hōhā about (Helen Clark makes the list alongside more obvious candidates like David Seymour and Mike Hosking).
It is fascinating to contemplate the way that the Sidesteps invite the audience to unite with them in song as there are some parallels between the structure of the audience engagement and the discussion of Te Tiriti in the performance itself. In some moments, the audience and the performers interact with each other as key twin parts of scenes or songs. In much the same way, the Sidesteps call on New Zealanders to “be a proud Māori! Be a proud Pākehā!” This echoes the contemporary call in Aotearoa for both tangata tiriti and tangata whenua to make progress toward decolonising the bicultural nation that we live in, as twin inhabitants of a nation, together, whilst, of course, decolonising ourselves, each other, and our systems in the process. (Also, land back).
The most impressive dimension of the performance is the way that frank material is made accessible to an extraordinarily wide audience through little more than dramaturgical skill. The staging is minimal – five microphones, a drum, some lights – at least as far as the design is concerned, we’re closer to the world of bar sing-along and stand-up comedy here than theatre.
But something about the structure of the show is essentially theatrical: the performance is more about demonstrating its point than talking about it – the audience are asked to learn kupu Māori and then action their learning; the audience are asked to clean up their pronunciation and then action it; the audience are told we’ll all have to introduce ourselves with our pepeha, which gets a laugh – obviously not! – but still, I suspect, raises for many individuals in the audience the fact that they do not know theirs. Demonstration, rather than didacticism, wins the day.
Go for the music, stay for the comedy, the kōrero.
The Māori Sidesteps plays Court Theatre 22nd September to 8 October, 2022.