By the 1990s Māori actors, writers and companies were consistently delivering many of New Zealand’s most exciting experiences in theatre, and drawing attention from other countries.
In 1991 John Broughton’s searing monologue Michael James Manaia was first performed by Jim Moriarty at the Edinburgh Festival. In that year Hone Kouka’s Nga tangata toa, an epic based on Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland, was developed together with Norwegian theatre worker Halldis Hoaas. The lead character of Rongomai was played by the outstanding actor Nancy Brunning. Nga tangata toa was later performed by Rangimoana Taylor’s group Kilimogo Productions in 1997, and by Taki Rua Productions in 2006.
The 1990s saw the development of ‘marae theatre’. Typically, the audience is called into the theatre space, greeted with waiata, encouraged to vocally support the actors during the performance and in general to treat the theatre as a marae. A predominantly Māori audience might respond to an on-stage haka with one of their own. In this form of theatre a kaumātua is usually seen as essential to the production. Hone Kouka has said that the kaumātua’s name should head the list of cast members.
Te reo Māori theatre
In 1995 Taki Rua mounted its first annual Te Reo Māori season, of plays fully or largely in the Māori language. In 1996 the season included Briar Grace-Smith's Waitapu, which had earlier toured to Canada with He Ara Hou. Grace-Smith’s next play, Purapurawhetu, was commissioned by Taki Rua and won the Chapman Tripp Theatre Award for Outstanding New Play in 1997. In that year Taki Rua ceased to operate from its own premises in favour of performing more widely. Its Māori-language productions have since toured to kura kaupapa, marae and many other venues.
Hive of activity
Wellington’s Taki Rua operated from its own premises in inner-city Alpha Street until 1997. Emerging Māori theatrical talent used it as a gathering place, to talk through and share ideas. Māori writers workshopped their plays at Taki Rua when it was not being used for a production. Kaumātua, Māori and Pakeha, who were part of the theatre’s life, gave them guidance and support. They included Tungia Baker, John Tahuparae, Wi Kuki Kaa, Bob Wiki, Rona Bailey, Keri Kaa and Sunny Amey.
Hone Kouka, whose theatre career began at Taki Rua’s predecessor The Depot, later founded the Wellington independent company Tawata with playwright Miria George. Tawata has held a Matariki Festival annually since 2010, incorporating theatrical voices from Māori and ethnicities. In 2009 Kouka was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to Māori theatre.
New theatre forms
In the 21st century, Māori theatre has explored genres much wider than agitprop theatre and marae-based traditional stories. Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, also well-known as screen actors and directors, turned legends into irreverent comedy in The untold tales of Maui, which toured nationally in 2003–4. Tawata Productions premiered Miria George’s science fiction-influenced and what remains in Cambridge, UK, in 2006. Playwrights such as Albert Belz (Awhi tapu, Yours truly, Te karakia) and Whiti Hereaka (Fallow, Te kaupoi, Raw men) have dealt with issues not previously seen as intrinsically Māori.
Māori Playwrights Festival
Belz, Hereaka and Briar Grace-Smith saw their work performed by a line-up of leading Māori actors at the first annual Taonga Whakaari – Māori Playwrights Festival in Auckland in 2010. That event also included the 24-Hour Deadline Theatre Challenge, in which five playwrights had 12 hours to write a 15-minute play, which was performed the following night.
In April 2012 six feature-length dramas appeared on television as the series Atamira. Each work had originally been written for the stage by a different Māori playwright. The series was co-produced by Taki Rua as part of an expansion into film and television production.
Shakespeare in Māori
In the same month Māori theatre arrived on the world’s most famous stage, when Te Haumihiata Mason’s translation of Troilus and Cressida was performed at London’s Globe Theatre. This was the opening production in a festival of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, each performed by a different national culture. It was produced by Rawiri Paratene’s company Ngākau Toa, and he played the role of Pandarus. One British reviewer felt that ‘the sheer strangeness of the event worked its magic, while across the language barrier came hurtling, with ease, the universal aspects of the story and its tragicomic richness’.1