More than just ‘Invincible’ [by James Wenley]
At the age of 19, George Nepia earned himself a place in Rugby history. As fullback on the All Black squad during the tour of Europe in 1924/25, he played in all 30 matches, and the All Blacks won them all. The team would be hailed as the ‘Invincibles’ and Nepia as the best full back of all time.
That’s the legend. What I, George Nepia gives us is the man. Nepia, as interpreted by playwright Hone Kouka, director Jason Te Kare and actor Jarod Rawiri, is worlds away from the hype. Rugby was never his dream and he’s humble and self-effacing about his on field achievements – so much fuss about a ball made out of ‘cow-hide’. His greatest achievement: Fatherhood, what else?
Kouka uses the framing of Nepia in the afterlife (at a Rugby stadium no less) hoping and waiting to meet his deceased son. Here, he reflects on his life, the story told from both the older, wiser perspective as well as the in-the-moment wide eyed and young Nepia.
On the boat to England we meet a Nepia entirely at odds with his portrayal as legend. He has all too human fears – not being good enough, and not fitting in with his team. The return to the ‘motherland’ that drives other team mates is lost on him, he finds himself a Maori in a strange land, the story becoming a deeply personal odyssey where he must travel away to find himself (a foundation New Zealand rite of passage if ever there was one!).
At the afterlife, Nepia’s desire to see his eldest son George, whose life was all too brief, is moving, putting Nepia’s life in perspective more powerfully than anything else.
Houka’s play is always on its feet and on the move, we are also told about the moment he meets his wife Huinga, how he learnt to play full back from his American school teacher Erwin Moser (get them in the stomach/the knees), and the disagreements with his All Blacks coach (think/don’t think).
There are hints at more – an unhappy childhood (vowing to raise his children differently), and racism (Nepia was barred from touring South Africa with the ABs), but the older Nepia chooses not to dwell further on them. Wisely, there is more unsaid than said. Through it all Nepia is revealed to have a joyful sense of humour, and like Nepia, Rawiri is also very good at a rendition of ‘Beneath the Maori moon’.
With much to choose from the life of Nepia, it is interesting what Kouka, with assistance from dramaturg John Vardis uses in this play. While certainly being a backdrop, Houka does not use the inherent dramatic possibilities of the repeated wins as the Invincible sweep Europe. While surely dramatically satisfying, that would have been a different play altogether. For Kouka, it’s not what Nepia is, but who he is.
There aren’t many dramatic possibilities in the life choices that Nepia makes either; he isn’t one of the many flawed characters that theatre thrives on. Nepia remains noble and goodhearted throughout, with Kouka’s portrait reverential and uplifting. Kouka trusts that the Nepia story is strong enough as it is.
I enjoyed being in Q’s Loft for the first time for the play. Roomier than expected, I appreciated being able to see the upper rig and workings of the theatre. In the traditions of the best solo work, I, George Nepia is told by the simplest of means. The stage is bare except for a chair and a guitar. On the back wall is a grey rectangle for projections of shapes, movement and distorted memories. This AV work is elegant and subtle, never overpowering Rawiri as Nepia, instead adding greater depths and shadows (Credits to Robert Larsen, Thomas Hanover and Ben Jack) This philosophy holds too for the music (composition by Miriama Ketu-McKenzie) and lighting (Larsen), doing much to support Rawiri’s performance.
Rawiri himself is an incredible Nepia: warm, complex and with a wonderful physicality. His eyes are intense, and I really do feel like I’m seeing what he sees – the never ending expanse of water as they make the slow voyage to Europe, the crowds in the stand. I’m transfixed as he melts between the old and young Nepia, taking then letting go age and experience, and it’s as if there are two different actors in the room. He employs many of the tools of the solo performance – direct address and connection with the audience, embodying characters (then having conversations with them), and he does this with ease, skill that must have taken much work in the rehearsal room with director Jason Te Kare.
After his turn in The Brothers Size, Rawiri once again proves himself a great physical performer, and I especially enjoy his ‘sped-up’ haka as it appears on film from that era.
At the beginning and end of the play an image of George Nepia is projected. At the start, for me it is little more than a photograph, curious only to see how Rawiri’ features compare. By the end, I look at it with fresh eyes, with the knowledge of all that I’ve seen before. It is startling. In Nepia’s eyes I see promise, and also sadness. Not invincible, vulnerable. A man, not a legend.
But this play? Legend.
Learn more about George Nepia at his Te Ara page.
I, George Nepia is presented by Tawata Productions and plays at Q’s Loft until 24 September 2011. More information at Q.