Gryphon Theatre
Sept 10-20 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

IF CHEKOV had been a Kiwi he might have written The Pohutukawa Tree. All the great themes are present – connection to the land; personal relationships; the dichotomy between preservation and progress; struggles against history and ancestry – but Bruce Mason’s play is regarded as a New Zealand classic and this production by Stagecraft Theatre proves the label is justified.

Aroha Mataira is the matriarch of the last Maori family at Te Parenga on the land that used to belong to her iwi, Ngati-Raukura, who have since moved to Tamatea. Her ancestor, Whetumarama won a famous victory over the Pakeha here and he planted the eponymous tree on the site. It droops throughout the play threatening to clobber people on the head; is it a menace that should be cut down or should it remain as a memento mori to the blood spilled between Maori and Pakeha?

Of course this is all highly symbolic and your stance on this determines your attitude to all other matters. Aroha refuses to leave, declaring, “No tree is cut; no stone disturbed – this is a holy place, now and forever.” Her opposite, Clive Atkinson (brilliantly portrayed by Deone Smith with a gamut of awkward, impatient gestures), owns the land now. His family have lived here for three generations but he is quick to sell the land if it is not making a profit. He advises her that she shouldn’t live in the past and that all things must come to an end. And that is the play in a nutshell.

Aroha Mataira is built up before we meet her and has great mana to uphold; her daughter says “everyone looks up to my mum”. Fortunately Salli Rowe is more than up to the task and delivers a powerful performance of majestic authority. The question is; is Aroha too tough? She is afraid her children will grow up and forget her teaching, but has she taught them love? She warns Queenie, “Your man will leave you when you are fat and ugly”. Johnny clings to her and tells her she is too big as he protests, “I’m just a Maori boy who wants to live in my own way”. Aroha’s pride supplants her love and she suffers in a Shakespearean manner from her own hubris.

Mani Dunlop is excellent as the inquisitive and bright-eyed Queenie Mataira leaning forward to ask questions, and she interrogates people a lot, with a guile-free charm alien from today’s cynical street savvy teenagers. Her loss of innocence is sensitively handled as she approaches adulthood more with a bang than a whimper. Johnny Mataira (Joazaniah Salanoa) embodies the adolescent tension of wanting to rebel and belong. His rangy energy, love of horses and obsession with Robin Hood (another legendary figure who hated usurpers) sits uneasily with his barely suppressed vitality and discovery of whiskey. When Aroha tells him he needs to put away childish things and become a man, she does not expect him to do it in so dramatic a fashion.

Both Johnny and Queenie tell their mother, “I do it because I like it.” Aroha’s Bible advises against worrying about tomorrow but it is hard not to. The young folk live for the moment and don’t think about the consequences, encouraged by the bloke from the pub, Roy McDowell (Theo Taylor) who slouches about the stage with comfortable insouciance. The Reverend Sedgwick (Jeff Osborne), a self-confessed “Bible banging dreary who comes in to show you where fun ends and responsibility begins”, is the intermediary between mother and children; Maori and Pakeha. Played with exactly the right balance of wisdom and humility, he always has a slight smile and a lot of sense. He tells Aroha, “I am a newcomer and do not know your ways”, and when he confesses, “You make me ashamed of my race, scouring the world for land,” Aroha tells him “I feel a spirit in you; a strength”.

The suggestion of something flirtatious between Sedgewick and Isobel Atkinson (played with calm aplomb by Deanne Graham) is echoed in the hint of attraction between the not-so-blushing bride to be Sylvia Atkinson (a superbly sullen Ella Lucas) and Johnny. There are half-glimpsed insinuations in much of the dialogue. The opening scenes are slightly rushed but the actors all soon settle into their rhythm. Some of the speeches are a little heavy handed as playwrights have a propensity to over-moralise: “Maori and Pakeha together will make the land fruitful but who takes the fruit?”

Ewen Coleman deals with this by playing it straight. His assured direction ensures that we get every nuance while he doesn’t wring it out. The realism of the play creates tableaux – you could freeze the action at any moment and it would make a perfect picture. The confrontations come thick and fast and all are given their visual moment: old versus young; Maori versus Pakeha; Christ and Christianity versus Kaumatua and Tikanga; the ‘perfect wedding’ versus the shotgun variety; parents versus children; husband versus wife.

The picture framing is enhanced by the fantastic costumes (Annabel Hensley and her team have surpassed themselves with the wardrobe) and the sensational set. The house with veranda, which doubles as the grounds for the wedding scene, opens up at halftime to reveal the inside of the house. Incidentally, one of the most affecting touches is the oblivious disrespect of the Pakeha who don’t remove their shoes in the Mataira household, and then discuss the family as though they were not there.

The wedding scene is a highlight, providing an opportunity for plot-filled speeches that would otherwise seem out of place. John Chalmers gives a frankly gorgeous Scottish cameo as Dr David Lomas, Tom Rainbird delivers a great drunken wedding speech as Claude Johnstone, and the hapless groom stumbling over his inauspicious thank yous is superbly captured by Malcolm Campbell.

The pace drops slightly in the fourth act but on the whole this is a great piece of theatre with consistently solid acting. The underpinning direction is so good that you hardly notice it, although you are aware of it in everything. The Pohutukawa Tree, Stagecraft’s 50th anniversary production, is an extremely apt way to celebrate their half century.