Herald Theatre
Sept 13-Oct 4 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

Whero’s New Net is a striking new play which asks those quintessential Kiwi questions: who are we, where do we come from and where do we really belong? And perhaps because I’ve spent my whole life asking those same questions, I found myself immediately captured by its premise.

Whero Mahana (Bree Peters), a young Kiwi woman, is on the great Kiwi OE, following her ambition to make it big as a musician in London. She is supported by a seemingly ragtag bunch of friends: her manager Dermot (Wesley Dowdell), an Irishman with a penchant for booze and cute Pacific men; his boyfriend Tupo (Blair Strang), a corporate advertising type; and her best friend Red (Madeleine Sami), a fiery, passionate co-musician. Whero is on the cusp of a major recording deal. So far, so good. Then Petera (Jarod Rawiri), the cousin Whero didn’t know she had, mysteriously turns up, hands her her father’s diary and disappears again. As Whero opens the diary and reads about her parents’ history, her world starts imploding and inexplicable things occur.

It would be wrong for me to reveal much more of the plot, but suffice to say that from this point in the layers of reality and truth are drawn ever tighter around the characters, much like the layers of an invisible net. As well as identity, Whero’s New Net delves into the layers of family, obligation and takes a brave look at the effects of mental illness. Featuring a “dream team” of young Kiwi actors, the play is a tight ensemble piece that would have been a joy to observe had I not been so caught up in the story.

Peters gives an assured performance as tough but soulful rock chick Whero. Sami is well cast as an explosive Red, while Blair Strang definitively throws off the lingering shroud of Shorty Street to emerge as a chocolate sex god (to quote from another Massive play). His shirtless reinterpretation of the haka, performed with Wesley Dowdell, is a comedic (and aesthetic) highlight. Dowdell gives a nuanced performance as the lapsed-Catholic, gay, guilt-ridden manager – rightly entrusted with some of the best lines in the play. Rawiri, as Petera, brings a geeky charm to what could have been a much more sinister character. But my favourite pair were Tainui Tukiwaho playing Whero’s father Kotare, and Kura Forrester as Whero’s mother Anahera. These two had a real onstage chemistry, making their love story convincing and moving. Both actors embodied a fragility which brought to life the poetic text – both Witi Ihimaera’s original short stories and Albert Belz’s new work, which built on the short stories as a base.

Music composed by Tama Waipara is an integral part of the play. There are “live” performances of songs throughout and even a “theme song”. The cast, in particular Peters and Sami, display fine singing voices. The final song – moving and evocative - appropriately becomes the conclusion of the play.

Set design, by Tracey Collins, and lighting by Jeremy Fern evokes a sea wall and boardwalk, complete with rusted iron screw and guano. It’s a stunning set, but if I had one minor quibble, it would be that the set is too literal. The play is largely set in London and sometimes it took an adjustment to believe that two characters sitting on a sea wall were actually in a busy airport. Having the characters enter and exit across a sea, though, was a nice metaphor for the personal exploration theme of the play.

Belz, Ihimaera and director Sam Scott discussed the process of collaboration in a pre-show talk. They talked about how much time, energy and resource is involved in supporting a truly collaborative work, and the constant negotiation required. (Belz was first commissioned to write the play in 2006 and has been working steadily since.) Scott spoke of how Massive Theatre Company prefers to give adequate incubation time to develop a work, often involving many people in its workshops and forums and consulting widely. In the case of Whero’s New Net, the negotiation was even more delicate because of Ihimaera’s place as a Maori writer of great mana, although the writer himself happily “gifted” the stories to Belz, telling him to write something original rather than do an adaptation. The collaborators recognised the writing process as “an implicit contract with Maori, our whakapapa and with the future” and spoke of how this idea influenced the development of the play.

Whero’s New Net is unashamedly nostalgic and romantic. It speaks about memories, hopes and dreams, both honouring the past and looking forward to the future. As an evolution of Maori theatre, it takes the next step, asking “where are our young people heading and what do they believe?” The answer, as poetically crafted by Belz, is both bittersweet and hopeful, and relevant to all Kiwis, not just Maori. Whero’s New Net will be a New Zealand classic. Be one of the first to see it.