Paniora; a tale of Spanish blood flowing in Maori veins

Paniora by Briar Grace-Smith
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland
March 20 – April 12

Two new plays at the New Zealand Festival dealt withcultural identity issues. Pasefika, written by Stuart Hoar, was a cleverly layered work about crosscultural influences. If it hadn’t been for a few accidents of history New Zealand might well be a French department, a concept explored by Dave Armstrong in his play Le Sud.

Rather than learning about Byron and Shelley, we might well have become familiar with Rimbuad and Baudelaire.

Paniora by Briar Grace-Smith, on the other hand, considers the influence of Spanish culture on Maori of the East Coast, a thought-provoking play about cultural adaptation and change.

While there has been speculation that Spanish mariners visited New Zealand before Tasman and Cook, Paniora takes its Spanish connections from a more recent history, deriving from a Spaniard said to have had five wives on the East Coast in the early 19th century, subsequently creating a dynasty of several thousand part-Spanish Maori.

The setting for Paniora is the Hotai-Martinez family where they speak Spanish, eat tapas and dance the flamenco. However, there are inner conflicts within the family where cultural, historical and personal divisions have created a dysfunctional family.  While there is much history and myth in the play, there are also various stories of passionate, thwarted and poisoned relationships.

As in all such situations, it needs an individual to lead the whanau and, while there are some outspoken men, there are also some stroppy women and part of the family heritage is linked to the woman who carved the local meeting house.

One of the family is destined to take a leading role to lead them both physically and symbolically – a bull fight would be the ideal event to achieve this.

The two great problems with the play are the slightly confusing narrative lines and dialogue that does not inspire and excite all the time. This meant there was a lack of dramatic coherence to the play. The often pedestrian quality to the writing needs more than just a little tweaking.

That said some of the performances are memorable with Nancy Brunning’s Te Mamaenui, the matriarch of the family displaying a calm demeanour, a deep awareness of family and tradition as well as a wit worthy of the Dowager in Downtown Abbey.

Maria Martinez, played by Miriama Smith, gave a robust performance with superb emotional control while Keporah Torrance as Bonita provided a strong central figure exuding grace and determination in reconciling her Spanish and Maori heritage.

Calvin Tuteo as Theo gave an energetic, brash performance, while Kurt Torrance’s Jimmy seethed with palpable resentment.

But it is the dancers from Okareka Dance Company who provide much of the raw power of the play. They act as apparitions from the spirit worlds as well as the very physical bulls of the present. They also helped create the disturbing atmosphere that pervades the family.

The play touches on number of issues about the nature of history, culture and family, exploring concepts of appropriation and assimilation  and the ways that individuals and society incorporate ideas and beliefs.

John Daly-Peoples attended the New Zealand Festival thanks to The New Zealand Festival and Quality Hotels