REVIEW: The Haka Party Incident (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Anuja Mitra

Photo: Andi Crown

[The Last New Zealand War]

There’s something about watching local history onstage — history so recent that some members of the audience sitting beside you were participants in the events portrayed. Written and directed by Katie Wolfe, The Haka Party Incident is a resonant piece of documentary theatre revisiting what its advertising calls “the last New Zealand war.” This describes the day in 1979 when members of the Māori activist group He Taua confronted a group of University of Auckland students rehearsing their annual tradition of a mock haka. Since the 1950s, Engineering students had donned grass skirts and painted obscenities on their bodies to perform a parody of the haka as a capping day ritual. That “inherited tradition” ended after May 1, 1979.

Though the confrontation lasted no more than several minutes, its reverberations were felt throughout the country. It reignited debates about institutional racism and the relationship between Māori and Pākehā, highlighting for others what Māori have known since colonisation: Aotearoa is far from some unsullied utopia with harmonious race relations. The show contextualises the haka party incident within its wider social, cultural and political environment. The occupation of Bastion Point had taken place around a year earlier. About two years later, the Springbok tour would inflame New Zealanders of every ethnicity, resulting in one of the most famous periods of protest in our history. And just as the fury around the Springbok tour was never about rugby, the incident involving the Engineering students was never truly about one group of young men on a drunken rampage around the CBD. As one witness to the court case tells us, it was “something bigger”. 

The show is verbatim theatre, a form I hadn’t previously encountered. Its script is taken from live interviews with people there at the time — from those directly embroiled in the action to those on the sidelines watching the uproar that followed. It’s apparent from the dialogue, and the way this is delivered by the small ensemble, that these are things really said by participants and witnesses. The actors recreate the speech of the real interviewees, preserving every pause and stammer and effectively switching ‘characters’ within seconds. This sense of authenticity makes the many funny lines funnier and the emotions expressed more vivid. It’s a fascinating method of weaving together multiple voices, and having actors channel them in a way that lets the voices speak for themselves.

Though the perspectives of He Taua can rightfully be called the focus, we also hear those of the Pākehā Engineering students alongside them. This aligns with the show’s documentary-style commitment to giving us a full picture of what happened that day and why  — including by letting us hear from those on the wrong side of history. One of the show’s pivotal moments features minimal movement, with He Taua and the Engineering students standing side by side to recount the confrontation that happened between them; it’s a credit to the direction and the energy of the performers that this feels dynamic. Literally placing the clashing views of the two groups side by side also starkly reveals the contrasts between them. We learn that the Engineering students had received complaints time and time again about their caricature of the haka, brushing these off as not their problem. We see, on the other hand, the growing anger of Māori and conviction that something had to be done.

These contrasts are heightened by the design aspects of the show, particularly John Verryt’s set design and Kingsley Spargo’s sound design. The large, neutral stage throws the emphasis on empty space and the way that the actors inhabit it. The sound design, meanwhile, shifts from subtle and mood-enhancing to loud when the show swivels in tone from scene to scene. One powerful example illustrates the jarringly different treatment Māori receive from Police compared to Pākehā. Another key moment sees the cast singing a patriotic hymn overlaid by a song from Māori activist theatre group Maranga Mai. It’s a musical representation of resisting institutional oppression, and a society that villainises those who stand up against victimisation. 

The dialogue-heavy production is broken up by song and multiple haka, with one original haka written for the show by Wolfe’s teenage son Nīkau Balme. Despite this, the two-hour runtime feels overlong in the latter half of the show. The Haka Party Incident explores a brief but important incident in recent Kiwi history, and it might have benefitted from a shorter runtime to retain the momentum it keeps up through most of the show. This is especially since it has no shortage of good visuals or punchy lines of dialogue to end it with a bang. 

That said, the show’s impact is clear through the kia oras and murmurs of agreement that ripple through the audience, particularly on lines like “being Māori is something no one can take away from you.” Finally taking to the stage after numerous Covid-19 delays, The Haka Party Incident continues a vital conversation we should all be having about tearing down racist institutions and standing in solidarity with tangata whenua. 

The Haka Party Incident plays the ASB Waterfront Theatre 30 March to 10 April, 2021. 

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