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Nga Tangata Toa: The Warrior People.

Hone Kouka has both extended the range of contemporary Maori drama, and avoided its two frequent pitfalls: tired Western televisual dramaturgy, and adaptation of traditional Maori song and dance into a merely ornamental alternative to substantial dramatic complexity.

Working with New Zealand's internationally recognized Ibsen director, Colin McColl, and the distinguished Norwegian dramaturg, Halldis Hoaas, Kouka has taken The Vikings at Helgeland as his starting point, seizing on the oral warrior culture, and on the melodrama of early Ibsen.

The transformation of Viking saga to Maoriland is not only effective drama, but benefits from audience familiarity with Maori protocol. As we entered, the actors offered the performance as a gift to us, the guests. In a version of a mihi (formal welcome), they strummed guitars, sang songs and greeted friends. To the roof of the warehouse theatre, Dorita Hannah's set had simply added rough wooden supporting posts, evoking both a Viking hall and a Maori meeting house. Every meeting house is protected by tribal ancestors, so the eerie choreography of performers in the grotesque postures of Maori carving was instantly recognizable. The almost entirely Maori cast performed traditional haka (wardances), waiata (songs), and fights with taiaha (spears).

Home from the Great War comes the hero, Taneatua (Ibsen's Sigurd), to the meeting house of his father-in-law, Paikea (Ornulf). Rongomai (Hjordis) is also drawn to the gathering, intent on utu (revenge) for the death of her own father, and fatally attracted to Taneatua.

In the Ibsenite plot convolutions that follow, we are sucked into the maelstrom of Rongomai's revenge: the curse on the bay where Paikea drowned her father, the killing of Paikea's son, revelation of her secret gift of pounamu (greenstone), the bunting of the meeting house, the theatrical magic of her seeming, in the simple act of saying aloud the words of the letter her sister-in-law reads which reveals Paikea's treachery, to have foreknowledge of the event. Less convincing is the substitution of dogs for the heroic great white bear of Ibsen's play.

Ibsen's use of an oral culture is enlarged in Kouka's portrait of Paikea, since respect for a poet and speechmaker is both traditional and contemporary in Maori culture. In performance, Apirana Taylor's fearsome ability with a spear (outstripping considerably the taiaha scene in the recent film Once Were Warriors) reinforced his position as a rangatira, a chief.

The 1919 Maori society of this play is volatile in ways that resonate with contemporary political concerns: they are a people undergoing the stress of change. Taneatua's wife, wearing the traditional women's moko (chin tattoo), has been content to keep the home fires burning for her warrior husband. Rongomai, on the other hand, was never tattooed, has married a European farmer, and visibly chafes at her woman's role.

Nevertheless, Rongomai is closest to the spirit world of her ancestors and gods. Like Ibsen's Hjordis, she is a proto-Hedda, a woman trapped with no outlet for her terrifying energy. Played with ferocious force by Nancy Brunning (in a healthy contrast to her television personality as everyone's favorite nurse on Shortland Street, New Zealand's nightly soap opera), she not only convinced us that she should have been a warrior, the soul mate and shield companion of Taneatua; but also that when she prayed to Hine-nui-te-Po, the goddess of death and night, she was indeed, like Lady Macbeth, invoking the spirits of darkness.

Taneatua, the war hero, opposes the destructiveness of Rongomai. Jim Moriarty restrained his powerful acting presence to create a character whom warrior culture has left uneasy. He has brought home his legendary bayonet, but refuses to recite sagas of great deeds. Rongomai seeks to unite the two of them in death, if not in life, in Hawaiiki, the ancestral homeland of all Polynesian peoples. But he has chosen a less warlike Heaven, so Rongomai must rejoin Hine-nui-te-Po alone. Taneatua, through his comradeship with his weak European friend (Gunnar), his respect for the warrior of words, Paikea, his duty to his conventional wife, and above all in his conversion to Christianity (Ibsen here awkwardly at odds with actual Maori Christianized history), stands for peace and reconciliation.

The strongest moments came from the marrying of full-blooded nineteenth-century dramaturgy with the formal non-naturalism inherent in Maori rhetoric and ritual. Larger-than-life characters forced the action into its conflagration and eventual darkness. When the production lifted into the heightened mode of ritual chanting, or the powerful threnody of Paikea's waiata tangi (funeral lament) for his son, emotion intensified with the theatrical strength of Greek tragedy or grand opera. At the same time, the pain and human suffering was utterly immediate, since Maori lamentation is hauntingly familiar to every New Zealander.

Hone Kouka has achieved his aim of not simply adapting Ibsen, but of using him as the inspiration for a major new New Zealand play.

DAVID CARNEGIE Victoria University of Wellington
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Title Annotation:Gay & Lesbian Queeries; Taki Rua Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand
Author:Carnegie, David
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 1, 1995
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