When Bob Mahie (Maaka Pepene) dies, it’s time for his sons to come home. But coming home isn’t always that easy. Playwright Mitch Tawhai Thomas’ Hui is a play that pulls on the heart strings. A play that explores the complexity of being a sibling when you haven’t seen your siblings for 20 years, when the only thing bringing you together is your dead father and the innate importance of family.
On entering the theatre the first thing that caught me about Hui was the set and the sound. The sound of heavy rain battering down on an old house. It’s the sort of house that you can recognize your aunty or grandparents living in. A small house in a small town, decked out with record player, ugly lazy boys, old wallpaper. The roof stacked with toys and other random belongings – the memories of a house that once held a family but now only holds the past. Set designer Sean Coyle has created a house that lives and breathes. Then there’s the technicalities. Using the power of lights and clever mesh Coyle’s set is beyond theatrical, it’s almost cinematic. The walls of the house being at one moment opaque and decorated with photographs before then melting away, allowing the audience to see deeper into the home. Jennifer Lal’s lighting design compliments Sean’s set intimately. Using a lot of side lighting and very little colour, Jen creates spaces within spaces, atmospheres within atmosphere. It is beautiful in its stunning simplicity.
The play itself, directed by Rachel House centers around a series of Maori stereotypes, albeit troubled ones at that. It’s a clusterfuck of family life with four siblings who couldn’t be more different. It opens on George (Tola Newbery) slipping his father into a suit. George has issues, he’s mentally underdeveloped but he’s also ‘every man,’ the sort of character who you feel like you know or maybe you’ve seen on the streets. Into this scene walks Pita (Xavier Horan). Pita is a born again Destiny Church member, a mongrel gone straight carrying all the evangelical baggage that accompanies that sort of transition. With Bob in situ in struts Tina, formerly Tane (Stephen Butterworth), much to Pita’s disgust. As tensions begin to fray the family is rounded off by Tamati (Vinnie Bennett), bubba, the golden boy, off playing league in the magical land of Oz. It’s a family, but functioning as a family is not something that these four have done in a long time.
‘I used to pretend I didn’t have a family, I wasn’t born anywhere, from nowhere.’
Hui therefore observes how these four people, each with their demons, each with their pasts deal with being thrown into a space where they are obligated to be present. Leaving is not an option but sharp words and irrational fists, tears and embraces are. Bob remaining in state, comfortably in his arm chair only adds to this mix, building the tension. It is around Bob that much of the drama is directed but it is also Bob who comes to his children to comfort them in their loss. These moments are subtle but powerful. Jennifer Lal’s lighting design creating an eerie cold atmosphere that is comforting in its sadness as much as it is devastating.
When things couldn’t get more complicated, in enters Nazreen (Cassie Baker) the secret? partner of one of the brothers. With Nazreen comes an odd comic hysteria. Decisions are starting to be made, the whanau is on it’s way and Bob’s final requests are not likely to go down very well. While George is adamant that his fathers wishes be respected his siblings allude to a probable ‘body stealing’ and forced tangi. Nazreen’s attempts to umpire the drama using her sports psychologist skills, ‘PAUSE’ are quite amusing but don’t manage to obscure the strong images and memories that come with this sort of content. George won’t stop talking about getting the burning over and done with and the rain won’t stop falling.
Hui is a full on play. The cast having done a fantastic job of putting on a performance that is emotionally challenging to the nth degree. Tola’s George, Xavier’s Pita, Vinnie’s Tamati and Stephen’s Tina, not to forget Maaka and Cassie as Bob and Nazreen, I could not congratulate enough. They have collectively created a hugely watchable and entrancing piece of theatre.
Hui is easily one of the great shows of this Auckland Arts Festival. A huge congratulations to the cast and crew, the team at Silo and at Auckland Arts Festival and of course the writer, Mitch Tawhai Thomas for creating such a beautiful work.
There is still time to see Hui as an audience member but you’ll need to get in quick as Hui closes on Saturday evening. Ticket prices and more information can be found here.
Oh and psssst – if you’re a student, turn up to buy tickets on the day of the show, present your student I.D. and get a half price ticket!