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Arts Festival Review: Te Karakia

Arts Festival Review: Te Karakia

Review by Richard Thomson

Te Karakia
by Albert Belz
directed by David O'Donnell
27–29 February, 1–4 March at Downstage
2 hours including interval
http://www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz/theatre/te-karakia
Review by Richard Thomson


Anyone who was there and had an opinion during the 1981 Springbok tour is nearly certainly now on the wrong side of 40 – and that includes almost all the audience at Downstage last night to see Te Karakia, Albert Belz's fusion of love, politics, race and religion.

The problem of the preconceptions and reminiscences of a largely liberal middle-class middle-aged audience is very real, and Belz succeeds in performing a deft side-stepping manoeuvre. There's some gentle prodding, admittedly, as protest leader Uru describes liberal Pakeha anti-tour protestors as sheep, but the drama in this play comes from the conflict between two rural families: one Māori, the other like extras from Lars von Trier's Hebridean tragedy Breaking the Waves.

The two children, Ranea (Miriama McDowell) and Matthew (Tim Foley), catch the school bus together each morning and afternoon, learning scripture and te reo from one another.

As they grow older, tensions between and within their families force them apart, until they meet years later in 1981 as the Tour gets under way, with Ranea preparing to join the anti-tour protesters and Matthew donning his new uniform as a member of the elite Red Escort Group.

The programme notes themselves admit there's some question over whether we need another play about the Tour, and answer by referring to the Foreshore and Seabed legislation and last October's "terrorism" raids at Ruatoki.

Well maybe. The most telling comments about the October raids and the psychology that produced them came from former Red Squad leader Ross Meurant, yet Belz adopts a radically different tangent in explaining the motivations of his characters.

Watching Te Karakia is a hugely enjoyable and emotionally gripping experience, but at times it's almost as if Belz is going out of his way in seeking to throw his audience's expectations off balance.

The result is that it's neither rugby nor racism that drive the action here. It's religion. Matthew's family's restrictive and reclusive beliefs precipitate the disasters that follow.

At times – most especially in a scene with Ranea and Matthew's dad Gareth in a paddy wagon, after the game in Hamilton has been called off – the effort involved comes dangerously close to outweighing the returns. But, paradoxically, giving his characters an edge of obsessiveness that's uniquely their own is the trick that enables Belz to drag his play out of history and back into the realm of individual actions and experiences.

Thanks in no small part to collectively superb performances, Tony De Goldi's tightly constructed, almost claustrophobic set and sharp direction from David O'Donnell, this production of Te Karakia overcame my suspicion that I was being treated as a pawn to be manipulated in some dramaturgical experiment.

There's been a bit of talk about how this play has lessons for the present, but fortunately there's nothing didactic going on. The learning is at once personal and universal, and comes easily from a powerful and engrossing story.

*********

Albert Belz's Guardians of Boy was part of the Wellington Fringe 08. See: Playmarket - Bruce Mason Playwright Award Winner at Capital E

Te Karakia on the Arts Festival Website
Full Scoop Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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