Mark Twain and Me in Maoriland by Taki Rua Productions uses a comment made by Twain when he visited New Zealand as a springboard to explore historical events in Whanganui. It was described by Lynne Freeman during the Art Talk as “ambitious, multilayered, hits you like a punch in the guts.”
At the Art Talk were James Ashcroft (Taki Rua), David Geary (Writer), Maaka Pohatu (Actor) and Ngapaki Emery (Actor).
David said that he had written 10 drafts of play and the one audiences were going to see was number 11. It started when he was writing a novel. He Googled “Mark Twain” plus “Whanganui”. One of the search results described Mark Twain’s reaction to one of the statues in Moutoa Gardens. David had an impulse that there was more to it than was reported. He researched for two years then came to the creative process for the show with a lot of information. ‘A problem for John Bolton (originally one of the cast, he replaced the original director when she had to pull out) was to try and get it into a state for a theatrical version.’ David emphasised that this version had been workshopped with the cast and that he considers that they are also the writers. (Noone is entirely sure what happens to the script after this – maybe collective ownership?) They were creating scenes based on ideas that he wanted to do. He has ‘twenty words on the page… someone’s got to pick that up and make it. Provocations – give them an hour, they come back with ideas.’
James said they were very nervous about reaction overall as it includes some racy content. ‘At the schools performance, the audience was engaged. They had a lot of questions about some of the information in the play.’ For example, the reference to arsenic in flour – ‘that comes from history’. The students had no idea about the event. “History yet to be uncovered. We are finding stories that need uncovering.”
David read a lot of histories of Whanganui before travelling to Putiki Marae to listen to people share stories. He felt it was a ‘battle then a battle to tell the story of the battle’ because of the complexity as there were ‘lots of different accounts’. He felt that because ‘it is a story about real people’, he ‘had to talk to people rather than just read books’. ‘Tikanga doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a bit of a Hone come lately.’ Usually he feels that as a writer ‘I have permission to write anything, but feel obligation in this one to involve people in the discussion.’
The actors uncovered some of their own family history during the course of the play. Maaka plays Ra, a maori soldier working on behalf of the government. His great-great-great grandfather did the same thing. Nga plays a wahine toa for the Hauhau. Her mother is part of the Pai marie religion. She drew on her experience of the ceremonies to help her develop her character.
The play has a reasonable amount of reo in it which was not part of the mandate for the work. Taki Rua have a Te Reo season and it was a great surprise to James to discover there’s so much. ‘What’s the game and theatricality in translating? There’s beauty and sadness in what’s lost in translation.’ The reo speaking actors refused to tell the non-reo speaking actors what was being said. Nga felt that it brings out ‘what is it to try and connect and try and understand.’
I have heard wildly differing opinions on this play. I enjoyed it. It seemed to me to be like a sketch comedy – where different characters (same actors) come out, play a scene then disappear only to emerge as someone else. I think it needs work on strenghtening the structure and narrative threads but I liked the energy and conceit of the way the scenes were staged. I believe it’s a joint production between the Wellington and Auckland Festivals so I’ll be looking out for it next year – maybe version 26?