The Vultures: a contemporary fable about the land

The Vultures
Writer/ director Miria George
Q Theatre
Until October 21

Vultures are scavenging birds of prey that generally feed on carcasses of dead animals but they will also attack and kill small defenceless animals. So, the title of Miria George’s latest play is apt as we observe some circling vultures of the human kind eyeing their prey.

There are five protagonists in The Vultures, all from the one Maori family. Three of them, two sisters and a brother have control of the family trust, which consists of a large farm bordering a toxic lake. Media boss Atawhai and Petara the businessman can see the possibilities of combining their property with two adjacent ones, which would give them a huge dairy farm. They could even use their toxic lake for the run-off from the farms

Hinemoa has a more traditional approach to the land and its connection to the tribal hapu and wants them to stay and restore the toxic lake rather than exploit it.

It’s a fraught tale about emerging Maori capitalism versus traditional notions of land ownership, and spiritual connections to the land. But mainly it is a tale about fraught family relationships.

Threaded through these themes are comments on a range of social, political and economic topics where unregulated and unquestioned progress and change are seen as disruptive and destructive.

Stylistically the play has its roots in Commedia del Arte, with each of the characters given a descriptive name – Sister Nurse Hinemoa, Magazine, Magnate Atawhai, Prodigious Petera, Child Scientist Kiwi and Champion Gymnast Te Rawhitiroa. This means the actors create well-rounded individuals as well as stereotypes that allow for elements of both tragedy and comedy. They combine traditional acting with physical theatre and stylised movement

As Petera, Te Kohe Tuhaka manages his “vulture“ persona brilliantly, with his hunched back giving him the look of the preying bird and also as he wanders around the stage scattering feathers as though moulting. At times he seems to be the reincarnation of a smiling Boris Karloff with conspiratorial delivery and inelegant gait.

As Atawhai Nicola Kawana strides around the stage delivering outrageous one-liners and punch lines with all the arrogance of a colonial settler. Her presence on stage dominates the narrative with a voice of acerbic clarity.

Referred to by Atawhai as “Mother Teresa,” Erina Daniels plays the part of the caring, nurturing Himemoa who fights a losing battle against the forces of her siblings.

It is the two younger members of the family, Te Rawhitiroa, son of Petera, and Kiwi, the daughter of Hinemoa, who provide the moderating voices in the conflicts.

Ani-Piki Tuari, playing the role of microbiologist Kiwi who understands the ecology of the lake and the implications of increased farming activity, is side-lined by the trust members. She laments her position saying, “what’s the point of being the genius in the family.” Her early appearances on stage are like stand-up comedy routines while her later inputs bring a bit of realism into the arguments.

As Te Rawhitiroa Kimo Houltham is an earnest young man who wants to preserve the old house and land just because it is peaceful and he has no interest in his father’s efforts to make him not just successful but also powerful.

Where Kiwi takes a scientific approach to the issues around the land Te Rawhitiroa’s outlook is more personal and related to the notion of living with the land and at one point is seen reading a book by Ranginui Walker on Treaty of Waitangi issues.

For the most part, it’s a cleverly written play with witty and politically astute comments that tell us as much about human interactions and social dynamics as it tells of the machinations of power.

This is a pertinent play not just about the issues of governance and ownership around communally held Maori land but also the ways in which land and its development are an integral part of the country’s future development.