REVIEW: Te Tangi a Te Tūi (Te Pou)

Review by Rand T. Hazou

Te Tangi a Te Tūī is a ground-breaking collaboration between Te Rēhia Theatre, The Dust Palace and The Cultch, which weaves together elements of Māori pūrakau, circus theatre, spectacular visuals, and stunning choreography to tell the story of the Tūī’s song which becomes an allegory for the beauty and persistence of te reo Māori. The Tūī’s birdsong is complex and unique and has been described as a “colorful mix of musical notes and offbeat sounds” (Birdsong website). Similarly, this production brings together a disparate range of colourful theatrical elements which, despite some offbeat elements, creates a melodious experience that is pleasing to the eyes and ears of audiences, and which will continue to reverberate through Auckland theatre for years to come. 

Written by Tainui Tukiwaho and Amber Curreen, the script tells two interconnected stories which centre around a mother Aotahi (Amber Curreen) who gives birth to her son Piri (Paku Fernandez) whom she tries to hide from the Patupaiarehe or fairy people and a mythical birdman called Kōiriiri who all inhabit a nearby forests. A leader of the Patupaiarehe, Te Pua o Te Reinga (Eve Gordon), wants Piri as a way to bring back the spirit of Hāpeta (Tainui Tukiwaho) – a man she loved and lost to war. The birdman Kōiriiri (Joe Dekkers-Reihana) wants the boy as utu or revenge against Aotahi’s ancestor who trapped him and gifted him to a priest. 

The first story follows the warrior Hāpeta who meets and falls in love with a leader of the Patupaiarehe Te Pua o Te Reinga. Their love is eventually threatened by the arrival of Pākeha colonists and the advent of war. Each time Hāpeta leaves the forest to fight in battles he returns more and more changed. The enchantment he felt for his love Te Pua o Te Reinga and the forest withers, eventually becoming symbolised by a wound in his side that won’t heal. Eventually his grandson Te Rongopai listens to the forest and the Patupaiarehe and pulls at the scab of the wound, releasing his grandfather’s pain and a flood of tears that transforms Hāpeta into a lake. In the production this transformation was enacted in a lovely sequence where a chorus of Patupaiarehe unfurl blue cloth across the stage as Hāpeta (Tainui Tukiwaho) recedes and then disappears under a raised rostra on the stage. 

The second story centres on the figure of the birdman called Kōiriiri who is trapped, tortured and eventually gifted to a Pākehā priest (Geoff Gilson). A key feature of this production, which uses the metaphor of Tūī birdsong to tell the story of the beauty of te reo Māori, is that the entirety of the production was delivered in te reo Māori barring one odd scene. During this scene, a bathtub is rolled out onstage and two attendants repeat biblical phrases in English while the priest carries out his ablutions before the birdman exacts his revenge and secures his freedom. My sense is that the second story was a bit weak and much of the extended trapping and torturing sequences of Kōiriiri could be cut. In a production showcasing te reo Māori, the bathtub scene and the spoken English dialogue was a bit jarring, sitting as just one ‘offbeat’ element in an otherwise melodious dramaturgical structure.

According to the programme the idea of the show came to co-creators Eve Gordon of Dust Palace and Tainui Tukiwaho of Te Rēhia Theatre, when they were teens over 20 years ago, when they heard of how the Tūī’s song is constantly morphing in response to colonial as well as industrial changes in the country. As with all great collaborations, the production contains uniquely creative elements that work because of the time and attention that has been expended. The sound design by David Atai and James Zambucka is outstanding and is woven seamlessly with the physical choreography and circus. Geoff Gilson’s circus direction is superb and the performers from the Dust Palace all give outstanding performances of agility, strength and grace. Another outstanding feature of the production are the lighting, set, and circus apparatus design by Jane Hakaraia whose creative and alchemical touch seems to transform any base theatre components into memorable and magical visuals. 

It is interesting that this uniquely New Zealand production, telling a uniquely Indigenous Māori story from Aotearoa, had its world premiere at The Cultch theatre in Vancouver in October 2023. The production was originally commissioned by The Cultch and indigenous company Urban Ink, which is a production company located on unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples that tells stories of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities and their connection to culture, language, and land. We should be grateful that cultural leaders in Canada had the vision and foresight to support this production and it is good that our own cultural agencies such as Creative NZ, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and the Auckland Arts Festival have come onboard to support this current run. 

Te Tangi a Te Tūī plays at Te Pou Theatre until 10 March, 2024 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival.

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