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The New Zealand Post Season of
The Pohutukawa Tree by Bruce Mason
Auckland Theatre Company
Until September 26th
Bruce Mason's Pohutukawa may be fifty years old but it has the freshness and contemporary relevance of a play written last week.
While it’s a play which deals with multi racial New Zealand it does so in a way which avoids stereotyping, preaching or being overly political.
It addresses the varying perception of the land with the Maori awareness of its history and spirituality set against the Pakeha view of its productivity and profitability.
Even though it deals with big social issues it is ultimately about the relationships of one family with their community.
The Pohutukawa Tree tells the story Aroha Mataira, who lives with her two children Queenie and Johnny, at Te Parenga. She has brought her children up to believe in their Maori cultural history as well as in the values of Christianity. Queenie is seventeen and Johnny is eighteen. Aroha is under pressure to sell the family owned small area of next to Mr Atkinson who has a large land holding where the Mataira’s work in his orchard.
Queenie meets a young man and falls in love with him. And becomes pregnant but he refuses to marry her because she is a Maori and his mother wouldn’t understand. Mrs Mataira sends Queenie away to her people, the Ngati Raukura, at Tamatea, where she has the baby and marries into the tribe. Johnny reacts violently to the family's unhappiness. He gets drunk and taking a taiaha, goes to the Church and smashes the stained glass window of the Light of the World. He is charged with willful damage and sentenced to three months' reformative detention.
The two calamities and the world of commercial realities is too much for Aroha to cope with she and slips into a depression and dies of a heart broken by her children and the knowledge that she has duped herself with values which are no longer relevant.
Central to the play are the debilitating effects of religion and conservatism and how it can wreck an individual. For, while the play concerns land issues and relationships between Maori and Pakeha it is about individuals and how they cope with their lives.
Rena Owens Aroha is a full of pent up of emotions which are released in torrents of aphorisms and references to the Bible, phrases which have been inculcated rather than learnt from experience.
She manages to convey this internal dilemma of a matriarch who has lost contact and control of her tribe, her children and herself.
Maria Walker brings a depth to the role of the seventeen year old Queenie. The discovery of a new world of love and her rejection of adult manipulation and control are all conveyed with a subtly of expression and acting.
Tiare Tawera as Johnny has a difficult role with a character loaded up with too many facets – dreamer, simpleton, drunkard and Warrior but he captures much of the essence of the conflicted young man.
Edwin Wright creates a an intelligent role as the voice of liberalism while dealing with his own personal and religious problems.
Stuart Devenie gives a solid performance as the Scottish Dr Lomas as do Peter McCauley as Mr Atkinson and Richard Knowles as the suave boyfriend Roy.
Mrs Atkinson might be so easily played as a colonial stereotype but Catherine Wilken’s presented a finely judged portrayal of middle class genteel lady of the land confronting the reality of her relationship with the Matairas
The unseen Pohutukawa tree exists as symbol of cultural and history providing shelter and solidity. But the same tree with its roots exposed is in danger of dying.
It becomes a symbol of Aroha and her life as well as that of elements of Maori society which are unable to adapt to changing social demands.
Tony Rabbit has created a tremendous minimalist set. It stretches the width of the stage with no flats at the sides. It consists of full rear wall made of timber lengths and a curved “hill” along the centre of the stage also of timber.
It provides a sense of a world enclosed, a combination of protective fortress and repressive prison. The effect is a subtle combination of enclosure and openness,
Some of the sub plots would have had a much greater potency when originally written but now have a new relevance. The conquest and ownership of land is seen in a wider context with Reverend Sedgwick revealing that he became a minister after being a bomber pilot in World War II and his part in the “mass murder”. His comments are set against the history of Te Parenga where Maori had massacred the British troops but the land had subsequently been bought by settlers.