Emma Hislop reviews Witi’s Wāhine by Nancy Brunning, currently playing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland.
“‘Mā te wāhine, mā te whenua, ka ngaro te tangata’ – ‘by women, and land, do men perish’. These ancient words are a warning, but they are also a gift, an elixir to bring ancient wisdom back to our world.”
There are 675 seats at the ASB Waterfront Theatre and it is not a small stage, yet when Witi’s Wāhine opened on Saturday night it might have been unfolding in someone’s living room. The lights on the audience are initially left up. The audience tonight is largely Māori and hums with a feeling of excitement and celebration. I spot Ihimaera sitting one row back and to the left, smiling in an orange cap and sleeveless jacket. When I steal another look a few minutes later, he has put on a mask.
Ka pai, Matua. Taoka like you need protecting.
Four actors appear on the stage. They are Roimata Fox, Olivia Violet Robinson Falconer, Pehia King and Awhina-Rose Henare Ashby.
“We can see you”, one of them confirms, and it’s as though she’s speaking to Ihimaera directly.
In a recent interview, Co-director Ngapaki Moetara said “Nāna te whare nei.” This is Nancy’s whare.
She was referring to the late and dearly missed Nancy Brunning (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tūhoe) whose craft helped bring Ihimaera’s female characters to live audiences. Witi’s Wāhine was first staged in 2019, in a story of wāhine and whānau and the ties that hold us tight through our whakapapa. That same year Brunning sadly died of cancer.
Moetara, says, “Nancy was a brave and formidable force. She was purposeful in crafting this work and has something important to say about Aotearoa.”
Less than 10 minutes in, it’s clear Brunning (with Tanea Heke and their company Hāpai Productions) has left us an incredible gift. The 18 scenes in Witi’s Wāhine weave an intricate pattern through Ihimaera’s works, and the result is astonishing. We are led powerfully through the universe at Rongopai, the wharenui at Waituhi, Ihimaera’s home town. Together, the short stories that unfold on the stage in front of me form an eloquent meditation on three generations, mortality and the passing of time, as well as reflecting our history with all the depth and the layers.
The cast has been described as eclectic, with varying degrees of exposure and experience. Alongside the cast are the tira (supporting cast): Raiha Moetara, Pepi-Ria Moetara-Pokai, Maramaria Ki-Tihirahi Moetara, Matawai Hanaatia Winiata. One thing is clear, they are all Māori as. I wonder what it’s like for the actors to carry such a beautiful, yet challenging wero. Alongside Brunning’s huge and important legacy, how do you ensure that the mana of Ihimaera’s characters is instilled into the actors?
The actors take on new roles in each story, the characters from Ihimaera’s books including Simeon from Bulibasha, Riripeti from The Matriarch and Tiana from The Dream Swimmer. It was Brunning’s aim to shine a light on the wāhine in Ihimaera’s books, especially as they were sometimes sidelined or changed in the film adaptations.
We are first introduced to an older woman sitting in an armchair, a knitted rug on the back of the chair. Three women tirelessly cut scrub; a hockey coach berates her team in a hilarious way; the matriarch Riripeti storms around in a Victorian skirt, expertly wielding a tokotoko. The audience watches with delight as the beloved characters of Miro Mananui and Maka tiko bum, from the anthology Pounamu Pounamu, cheat each other in their game of cards. These nannies are based on Ihimaera’s real-life nannies. Their appearance on stage brings a huge cheer from the audience. Not a minute of the show is wasted, and never strays into cliché; it’s too well-written for that. Witi’s wāhine are distinct from one another and they are all sustained by the whenua.
The set is simple, and extremely clever: two walls leading into a point at the back of the stage, with doorways off each wall. Characters come in and out of doorways to karanga, and to perform incredible poi and waiata. The play uses shadow and light cleverly, and uses the open doorways as a way to talk about time – it’s like the characters are reaching through the room from this world into the next. Everybody has responsibility for the story, rather than someone just playing the lead. The collective energy is strong, which is an approach firmly grounded in te ao Māori. Costumes are largely minimal, elegant accessories used to emphasise character traits, a walking stick, or a shawl.
There are lots of laugh out loud moments, and as we reach the scenes that tackle hard subjects, we feel so connected to the performers that we can’t help but get a lump in our throats when we watch a grandson grapple to understand his dementia-suffering nanny Miro, from A Game of Cards. And yet the scene is made jovial at the same time as they play a game of hide and seek. The segment that tells the heart-wrenching truths of what happened at Rongowhakaata tīpuna at Ngātapa packs a punch, vibrating with the pain of our history, and brings tears to my eyes.
The production contains a physicality – much of the choreography comes from the haka world. It’s both efficient and impactful. The complete space is utilised and it’s as though the whole stage talks. Te ihi, te wehi, te wana. The level at which haka deals with composition is phenomenal, because it deals with wairua, not just shapes and forms. The result is powerful. Despite the difficult subject, it hums with the promise of healing, one karakia at a time. These characters are not victims of circumstance, they demonstrate the mana and the integrity our people had. They’re doing it on their terms.
While Brunning wrote each segment so that they contrast in form and feeling, it has been done in a way that makes you contemplate what has happened to each of the characters in their lives previously. The play seems to be asking: what has shaped these people who we encounter now on stage? Ihimaera is a master of writing complex, strong personalities and the actors in the play embody his words with intent. When you view these short pieces as one entity, what strikes you is how they showcase the knowledge that comes with age. Nannies, aunties, sisters, brothers, as well as memories of the matriarchs in my own whānau. These are rich and nuanced Māori characters written by Māori. It strikes me that this must be a fine line, a hard thing to implement.
I have never been to Waituhi, yet through their performances, I can feel the specificity of the place, the aunties and the papas from Tūranga, from Ngātapa. In the lead up to the production, directors Teina and Ngapaki Moetara brought the actors to Tairāwhiti for rehearsals for this iteration, because both Ihimaera and the pūrākau come from there. Ihimaera grew up in rural Waituhi, nurtured in the stories of his nannies, aunties and sisters. The four tiri also come from there. It strikes me that this is indigenous storytelling in consideration of the people of Te Tairāwhiti and Tūranga, and their whenua. This approach seeks the rongoā inside the work and encourages beauty and play in the actors as a safe passage through. All this means that the actors can show up and deliver. Which they do.
I want to mihi to Nancy, Teina and Ngapaki, Witi, Tanea and the cast for this extraordinary storytelling. From Witi’s beautiful taoka, to all these different iterations of Nancy’s precious script. Nāna te whare nei.
Witi’s Wāhine by Nancy Brunning, a collaboration between Hāpai Productions and Auckland Theatre Company, is now playing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 20 May. Tickets can be booked online here.