Te Pō: a great play in Auckland with just a few more nights to run

Simon Wilson called the play Te Pō “a masterpiece” when it premiered last year. It’s back for a short return season and he went along to see if he got it right.

There’s a moment late in the play Te Pō when the actor Carl Bland stands alone on stage and bawls out his grief that he has lost the one he loves and, roiling over the top of that grief, his anguish that God has let it happen. I’ve seen it three times now and it still makes me burst into tears. I’m tempted to say it’s one of the most upsetting experiences I’ve ever had in a theatre but I don’t want to give the wrong idea. I’m very grateful. I hope to see it again one day and I hope I will never forget it.

Te Pō is a play about a police inspector who is looking for a missing man, called Bruce Mason, whom the inspector does not know is a playwright. It’s about a kaumatua who is waiting to see Bruce Mason. It’s about a vicar grieving for the death of his wife. There is furniture that moves, and a brick that has a very important role. We hear Bruce Mason reading from End of the Golden Weather. There’s slapstick, cheap and very funny jokes, and quite a bit of literary humour. Te Pō is a night of theatre magic, some of it deliberately hokey, some of it sublime.

There’s a brick in Te Pō. And also, from left, Andrew Grainger, Rawiri Paratene and Carl Bland. Photo: Meg Cumberpatch

It’s an adventure into the deeper reaches of time, identity and culture. It’s about the relationships of art and life, fact and fiction, memory and belief, faith and knowledge. It pays homage to Mason by shouldering the mantle he wore as a Pākehā playwright embracing te ao Māori. Absurdist and absurdly funny, Te Pō strikes at your heart, because what it’s really about is the impossibility of coming to terms with grief, even though, it turns out, grief is the thing we most have to come to terms with. It’s got a giraffe in it.

What makes that soliloquy at the end even more incredible is that Bland’s rage and despair burst from the midst of a hilarious retelling of a very famous story – I’m trying to avoid spoilers here – that is so funny, and insists on remaining funny even while it is also tragic. On top of everything else, the play is a celebration of the confusing, exhilarating complexity of our emotions. And it’s about men. Men in the midst of all that.

Te Pō is playing at Q Theatre just until Saturday. This short season is a return of the production that premiered in the Auckland and Wellington arts festivals last year. Eighteen months later, it has settled into itself: the actors are more assured, the presentation of the whole, somehow, more delightfully sly.

“I know that sunshine follows rain, I know that pleasure follows pain.” Rawiri Paratene sings Prince Tui Teka in Te Pō. Photo: Meg Cumberpatch

Rawiri Paratene has joined the cast, replacing George Henare, and his performance is a subtle interplay of shamanistic wisdom and shambling charm. His oratory, in te reo, is gripping; he also sings a few spots, Prince Tui Teka cabaret numbers and also “I Can’t Stop Loving You”. Songs of the night, because this is Te Pō after all. Yes, it’s odd, and wonderful. Paratene helped create the role in its original workshop in 2015 and it’s great to see him inhabit it so assuredly.

There’s more here and you can book here.

Why has the play been revived? Because it’s worth it, of course. But also because the company that presents it, Nightsong, needs help. Nightsong is Carl Bland, who is the writer as well as one of the actors, and director Ben Crowder. This is what they do, and to keep doing it they need a stronger financial base.

Sometimes slapstick, sometimes sublime: Grainger and Paratene in Te Pō. Photo Meg Cumberpatch

They’ve been selected as one of only two NZ groups to present their work at the Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane next year, and while Creative NZ will help them get there, they’re short $15,000 to make the trip happen. It could really open doors, as they say. Nightsong also has two new shows in development, one of them for children, and they need resources for those shows to happen too. You can find out more about them here and contact the company on info@nightsong.co.nz.

Time to become an arts philanthropist? Check out Te Pō at Q Theatre this week (it ends Saturday) and see if they might be for you. There’s an annual patron scheme, a platinum patron scheme, and who knows, maybe for the right consideration you could even get Rawiri Paratene singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You”: How can there be a song without the music, how can there be a wave without the sea? Night songs from Te Pō, in a private performance just for you. He’s really quite special. The whole show is.

simon@thespinoff.co.nz @simonbwilson

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