Reviews, News and Commentary

Witi’s Wahine: ordinary lives full of humanity

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Witi’s Wahine by Nancy Brunning

Auckland Theatre Company

Auckland Waterfront Theatre

Until May 20

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

With “Witi’s Wahine” playwright Nancy Brunning has delved into the many books of Witi Ihimaera and re-presented them in a new dramatic form which shows both the richness of the authors writing and his ability to tell meaningful stories which are also fables and parables which offer insights into Māori life and culture.

As Witi and others  have noted, the meeting house is both a metaphor and a living entity representing the ancestors, the past tales, myths and aspirations of the iwi. It this concept that is at the heart of “Witi’s Wahine”. The  actors and performers both act out and share the stories and experiences of several women who we have previously encountered in Ihimaera’s fictional world but feel as though they have had a much greater impact.

They become part of the whare nui as the posts which support the structure and their tales are the tukutuku panels providing stories and metaphors.

Just as the tukutuku panels are made by weaving strands of material so the various stories which are recounted build, up a woven history of ancestors, individuals and families.

All these stories focus on the female protagonists, on the matriarchs who are healers, storytellers, keepers of children (and husbands) and truth-seekers. Māori myth and  cosmology is full of  stories of powerful women, and they have been given new life through  through the work of Ihimaera as well as female writers such as Robyn Kahukiwa and Patricia Grace.

The main actors – Pehia King, Olivia Violet Robinson-Falconer, Roimata Fox, Awhina-Rose Henare Ashby are like a group of Aunties engaged in a korero; relaxing, playing cards, remembering, guiding and instructing. They also engage with the audience as a whole as well as some individuals so we became part  of the story sharing which contributed to emotional dimensions of the work.

The stories they tell are range from the mythic tales of creation through to contemporary times and their locations range from the small East Coast town of Waituhi where Ihimaera grew up  to the  deserts of Tunisia.

Nancy Brunning has taken vignettes from several of  Ihimaera’s book as well as including the author’s first youthful piece of writing which is a reworking of the Rapunzel fairy story. The stories are drawn from his first book, Pounamu, Pounamu, Tangi, Whanau, The Matriarch and several others including The Whale Rider with its retelling of the myth of Paikea.

There was a subtle soundscape featuring the sounds  of birds, bees, whales and heartbeat along with two sets One is just the bare stage while the other a more abstract one with six openings suggestion  passage to the past and future. It is the actors who describe the settings with a minimum props and minimal action although the various dance performances are spirited and the re-enactment  of Te Kooti’s  battle and withdrawal  at Ngatapa was a  dramatic and stirring sequence.

In several scenes featuring dance and waiata that the other members of the cast – Raiha Moetara, Matawai Hanatia Winiata, Maramaria Ki-Tihirahi Moetora, and Pepi-ria Moetara-Pokai added a rich dimension to the play. The stories range over themes of birth illness, death, guilt and  discovery. Some are witty, some polemical, some tell  of myth and history most tell of the ordinary lives of delightful characters, rich lives full of humanity.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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