Auckland Festival, Herald Theatre
March 5-8 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

Te Karakia opens with a provocative premise: what if a couple, a Maori woman and a Pakeha man, were on opposite sides of the fence during the 1981 Springbok Tour? With the world today preoccupied by other threatening issues, it is easy to forget the impact 1981 had on our sense of nationhood. (Some of us were too young or uninformed to notice.) Cannily timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Tour, Te Karakia is a timely reminder of what happened. But it doesn’t quite go far enough in exploring the racial and colonial issues which lay at the heart of the Tour protest, and which still grumble on today.

Belz has built a reputation for carefully crafted work which takes on the big themes – love, death, identity. In the first act of Te Karakia he demonstrates this skill by slowly building up the parallel stories of the lovers. Matty Connell is from a white farming family, his only living relative his grandmother Elsbeth, who is a devout exclusive Brethren. Matty is befriended by the confident Ranea, the daughter of Tohu the farm labourer, who is the traditional owner of the land which the farm now occupies. The attraction between the two, who we see as both young adults and as children (swinging between the 1970s and 1980s), is evident, but Matty is constrained by the frigidity of his religion and by the memory of his dead parents, who are buried in his grandmother’s garden.

Whalley and Emery are entrancing in their portrayal of the two lovers, being especially successful when reproducing the puppy love of young playmates. Rees and Taylor, the more experienced actors, give solid but sometimes overly formal performances as the older guardians. Tukiwaho and Drinkwater provide good support, although as supporting characters they are not given much range to show off their considerable acting talents.

The lighting and staging elements (by Tony de Goldi, Paul Tozer and Stephen Gallagher) are clever and carefully considered in terms of period: especially successful is the projection of old newspaper photographs onto semi opaque screens, and the use of a microphone by “sidelined” actors to create soundscape.

By the time Act One ends, Belz has built a tightly constructed stand-off. A series of revelations have set up a tense situation involving land, identity and overwhelming love against the odds. Unfortunately, Act Two doesn’t quite deliver in terms of either conflict or resolution. I was taken by surprise when the play ended, and left wanting much more of what had been an intriguing set up.

To me, the focus on Matty and Elspeth’s religion seemed an unnecessary sidestep to the core conflict: that two young people had to decide for themselves what loyalties they had to their land, their people, and each other, and in making that decision, grow up. Some historians consider the Springbok Tour a coming-of-age for a New Zealand, and Matty and Ranea’s story is clearly meant to embody that metaphor. Their story seems to end on a cliffhanger, though. Whether that is the intent of the playwright or the result of a poor staging decision is unclear.

Te Karakia is a prayer left unfinished. This play starts off by engaging the big questions: who are we as a nation, where do our loyalties lie, and who really should own the land. At the end, though, (just like our politicians), it backs away from answering these questions. And that is why ultimately, I found this play less satisfying than its early promise suggested.