Identity, passion, confusion, manipulation, interlock to create Paniora! A throbbing new work from playwright Briar Grace Smith, directed by Colin McColl for Auckland Theatre Company in association with Okareka Dance Company.
It seems to be a common thread in New Zealand culture that the further we get away from our ‘exotic’ roots, the more desperate we are to cling on to them, to make them something real. Paniora’s Jimmy Hotai (Kirk Torrance) is no different, trying desperately to create an authentic Spanish identity for the Paniora. Equipped with a wife (Hera Dunleavy), obsessed with Spanish culture (or appropriations of it), and a matador (Barnie Duncan), Jimmy seems to think he is going to save the Paniora. To make them known across the world. But to me, the obsession with Spain seemed to be all smoke and mirrors for what was really a story about a family that had been totally manipulated by their ancestor Papa Calitos and now by their kuia, Te Mamaenui (Nancy Brunning).
The conflict that comes with this confusion makes for a show full of explosive interactions, handled superbly by a very talented cast. Kirk Torrance, Hera Dunleavy, Barnie Duncan, Nancy Brunning, Calvin Tuteao, Keporah Torrance and Miriama Smith bounce off each others energy to create moments of light and dark, and importantly laughter. For a potentially heavy show it is perhaps the funniest Māori play I’ve ever seen.
Highlights for me were Nancy Brunning and Keporah Torrance.
Nancy Brunning is commanding as the family matriarch, domineering, opinionated. Te Mamaenui is a strong character and Brunning gives her full justice. In opposition to Te Mamaenui is Bonita, the youngest family member (on stage) but perhaps the one most likely to see above Te Mamaenui’s manipulation. Keporah Torrance slips into the body of this character and made it real. She was a delight to watch on stage.
For me the interactions of these women, as well as Dunleavy’s Terry and Miriama’s Maria was what the show was actually about. It was their story.
In addition to the action generated by the cast was the atmosphere provided by Okareka’s dancers. Briar Grace Smith’s works often evoke a sense of unattainable otherworldliness, crushing down on the souls of the protagonists. Okareka was the perfect fit to portray this. Choreographed by Taane Mete, dancers Taiaroa Royal, Lisa Greenfield, Eddie Elliot, Kosta Bogoievski, Jared Hemopo and Arahi Easton were entrancing. Whether as bulls or cattle in stampede, or as an owl, they added another dimension to what was already a strong piece of work.
Adding dynamism to the work of the dancers was Sean Coyle’s set, or more specifically – the sand. I’ll admit, when I first noticed the sand I cringed, what poor stage manager is going to have to clean that up flitted across my mind but in action the sand was beautiful. The dancers would fly around the stage flitting sand into the air where it would capture the light like an alive haze.
The design team did a really beautiful job. Full disclosure, the lighting designer is my mother, Jane Hakaraia BUT between Coyle’s set, Nic Smillie’s costuming, Eden Mulholland’s phenomenal sound design and Jane’s lighting it was a beautiful sight to behold.
As per usual Briar Grace Smith has created a world that I fail to do true justice to within the scope of a blog post. It is a story that I could easily write a full essay on and that I am sure university’s will take great joy at analysing. It is complex, it is beautiful, it’s messy. It was a joy to be part of for those two hours.
Paniora! is on at the Wellington Festival until Wednesday the 5th at Soundings Theatre in Te Papa before heading up to Auckland to open at the Maidment on the 20th.