George Henare gives a majestic performance in ATC's Awatea
Awatea by Bruce Mason
Directed by Colin McColl
Until August 11
Awatea opens with an elaborate lie. It is Matt Paku’s reading of one of his letters to his blind father telling of his success as a doctor. The play closes with him reading another, but the audiences by then recognises them as fictions which are truths about life.
Paku, who is part conman and part healer, has been away from the East Coast settlement of Omoana for several years but he sends letters to his father Werihe telling stories of his “patients” which keep his dad and the hapu up to date and entertained.
Dr Matt has made his father proud, and that pride is reflected in the local community – having a son who has made it big in the outside world of the early 1960s.
But Matt’s days are over as the police have arrived to arrest him for assault, robbery and car conversion. It is only through the intersession of local postmistress Emma Gilhooly that a complicated deception is concocted so his father and the hapu will not be humiliated.
The play has strong messages about the need for open and honest communication, the preservation of mana and the need community and cultural understanding.
Many of the issues and problems which the 50-year-old play raises are still relevant today. But it is also gratifying to realise there have been major social and cultural changes over that time.
One of the central themes is the nature of truth, our perceptions of it and the problems which arise with deception.
This connects with notions around the concept of pride and the loss of face which run through the play as the various characters try to protect themselves, their public image and their mana.
The key focus is blind Werihe Paku, played by George Henare. While he cannot see, through his natural instincts and shrewdness he comprehends what has happened to his son and the implications.
Henare's majestic performance gives the character a strong emotional stature. In reacting to the moment of truth about his son, his emotional core is shredded and Henare provides us with a King Lear-like character – distraught and humiliated. It is a performance of amazing power and poignancy.
Geraldine Brophy’s wild hectoring Emma Gilhooly could have easily have derailed the show but she managed brilliantly to combine the comic and tragic in a brave and inspired performance.
Te Kohe Tuhaka as Dr Matt was solid but his rather flat delivery meant he was unable to give the character any sense of conflict between his life as villain, trickster and storyteller.
The police inspector (Carl Bland) was an excellent foil to Henare as they skirted around the crucial issues, with Bland providing a keen sense of a sympathetic and perceptive observer of human interaction.
The play was originally a call for Maori to write about their lives and articulate stories and the issues facing their society at the time. In some ways, the play was prescient as Witi Ihimaera was beginning to write such stories at the time.
Just as Ihimaera brought an understanding and awareness of Maori contemporary society, Dr Matt is seen as doing the same in his fabricated letters.
This bringing the light to bear on Maori society has been brilliantly conveyed with the set, where designer Tony Rabbit has displayed large versions of Matt’s letters in the style of Colin McCahon's last paintings, with stark white lettering on a black background.
It is a pity that such a beautifully conceived and well-written play peopled with well-observed characters is performed so rarely. It is a treat not just as a piece of New Zealand literary and social history, but one which is able to deal with issues in a sensitive and relevant manner.