Michael Gilchrist - TheatreView
Hohepa is an event to be celebrated inNew Zealand theatre. It is a collective, decisive step forward in terms of how a bi-cultural society can conceive of and create itself. And it has a prismatic, rich beauty.
Partly this is a result of the depth of excellence in every aspect of the production and design: perfectly judged costume and make-up, including moko; a bold, inventive yet flexible and functional set design; superb, stylish visuals and lighting; precise surtitles.
The direction by Sarah Brodie and choreography by Taiaroa Royal are, again, of the highest standard. No-one in the star studded cast rests on their laurels – on the contrary, everyone is engaged to a rare degree and the ensemble work by both cast members and the chorus is outstanding.
It seems unfair to single anyone out but Jonathan Lemalu's movement as Te Kumete provides an utterly credible physical centre to many scenes; Deborah Wai Kapohe as Te Rai is simply luminous; Phillip Rhodes in the title role is strong in every way and works perfectly with Lemalu.
There are layers of vocal interest too, Eddie Muliaumaseali'i as Kaparetehau being a case in point. Nicky Spence as Thomas Mason has superb tone, Martin Snell is suitably powerful.
Members of the Vector Orchestra and their conductor Marc Taddei bring the commitment and polish we have come to expect from them. There is an unusual sense of pride in this production – and an unusual sense of humility.
That combination is due in part, no doubt, to the fact that this is a work that has unusual cultural resonance. It also assembles a formidable array of cultural resources. Integrating this resonance and these resources in a contemporary art work – a work that almost automatically creates the expectation that it will have a unique shape and influential definition – is a huge challenge. I think it is a challenge that Jenny McLeod – who wrote both the music and the libretto – fully meets, but in ways that are perhaps not immediately obvious.
Essentially Hohepa is an epic story of people rather the tragic story of its hero. Its four acts traverse an initial honeymoon period of settler interaction with Maori, the violence and suffering that ensues as the land grab gets under way, the deportation of Hohepa and Te Kumete to Tasmania, and the recovery and return of Hohepa's bones to his own people on the Wanganui River 150 years later.
It is a story that opens many perspectives instead of pursuing one obsessively. It mixes English and te reo Maori often in the same sentence and the music explores the relation between kapa haka and a post romantic western idiom. It contends, it reaches out, it is mingled, at times, it is sudden. The libretto is subtle and nuanced, humourous, satirical and pithy by turns.
There are spine tingling moments, too, but maybe not as many as there seems the potential to be. It stops short of catharsis or epiphany despite powerful moments of grief and beauty. At times, it digresses almost. A whole act is devoted to what we might think of as the denouement of the story in conventional terms. And it doesn't explicitly try to bring home the contemporary reality, so nicely exposed in the early parts of the story, that at every level and every stage in our history – whether it is Governor Fitzroy being succeeded by Governor Grey or the first Quaker settler by the fearful and acquisitive settler – we continue to face; this remarkably similar if uneven struggle between those, both Maori and Taoiwi, who want to build the nation Aotearoa/New Zealand could become and those who want to expropriate it to the interests of global capital. And those who, in a perfectly timeless moment immediately recognised by the audience, see no option but to move toAustralia.
But this is a real story of a community and one of its most important ancestors and we hear different voices and dimensions coming through. It is porous and plural; it reflects the interaction of individual innovation and collective conservation that sustains the iwi. It opens doors, it doesn't slam them.
Stronger dramatic contours may evolve in this work but more than this, my feeling is that Hohepa may be all the more fecund and fertile an achievement in the future for having the unique integral character and fidelity it does. It's a must-see for anyone interested in what we can now muster in New Zealand with regard to this most demanding form of theatre and what we can do in the future.