War inspires powerful work of contrasting emotions

Te Kohe Tuhaka prepares for Michael James Manaia at the Fortune Theatre this week. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Te Kohe Tuhaka prepares for Michael James Manaia at the Fortune Theatre this week. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
The Fortune Theatre is charged and primed for its 2013 season. The opening salvo is an explosive play which changed the landscape of New Zealand theatre. Nigel Benson reports.

War is hell. And it doesn't end when the swords are turned into ploughshares.

Maori warrior Michael James Manaia has returned from the Vietnam War, but the horror has followed him home, like napalm on his back.

Michael James Manaia is one man's story from a generation of ghosts.

Michael was an isolated youth in a remote New Zealand town raised by a European mother and alcoholic World War 2 veteran Maori father, who glares at life through ''bloodshot Johnnie Walker eyes''.

After school he joins the army and is clad in khaki and sent to Vietnam.

Fighting for his life in the jungle, he confronts his own mortality and ancestral heritage, while gaining an insight into his father's world of demons.

He eventually emerges safely from the jungle, but into a world he no longer knows, as he struggles to reconcile where he is from, what he has seen and who he is now.

He is back in the sanctuary of New Zealand, but his demons still entwine him like vines in the Vietnam jungle.

Auckland actor Te Kohe Tuhaka performs the one-man play like a human Gatling gun.

''It's a massive piece of work. There were 110 pages of dialogue and eight or nine characters to play; sometimes all at once. The whole two hours is constant movement and dialogue,'' he said on arriving in Dunedin yesterday.

''When you meet Michael, you don't know where he is, physically or mentally. It's fascinating how it jumps from memory to memory. One minute, he is on the farm he grew up on in New Zealand and the next he's in a Vietnam jungle.

''There is light and dark in the play. Some events are hugely dark, on an emotional scale. But I also wanted to draw out the lightness. It is amazing what laughter can do to people.''

The role made Tuhaka (30) reflect on his own heritage and the sacrifice of young, unknown men like him.

''All I knew about Vietnam was what the Americans told us. It made me understand about some of Dad's friends, who went through it.

''As a lad, I'd think: `There's something not right with him'. This play made me realise why they were like they were.''

Michael James Manaia was penned by Dunedin playwright Prof John Broughton in 1991 and has been performed around the world.

It was part of the first wave of significant Maori theatre works and inspired other Maori playwrights.

It was redeployed last year by Maori theatre company Taki Rua and director Nathaniel Lees, who felt it ''still had something to say''.

Prof Broughton works at the University of Otago Faculty of Dentistry and Dunedin Medical School and also spent 17 years in the New Zealand Territorial Army.

''Most of the dialogue came out of the mouths of real soldiers,'' he said.

''The themes are timeless. When you look at the war in Afghanistan and things, the issues haven't changed. In that context, things are still the same.''

Prof Broughton will be in the audience for the Dunedin opening on Saturday.

''I'm really looking forward to it. [Director] Nathaniel Lees has taken it to a whole new level.''

Michael James Manaia opens at the Fortune Theatre at 7.30pm on Saturday and runs till February 16.


Asides
• Fortune Theatre artistic director Lara Macgregor will hold a talk on Michael James Manaia at 3pm in the theatre bar on Sunday.
• A question-and-answer session will be held with the cast and crew after the 6pm show on Tuesday.
• On Thursday, Michael James Manaia actor Te Kohe Tuhaka will perform an excerpt from the play at 12.30pm on the ground floor of the Dunedin Public Library.
• An audio-described performance for visually impaired patrons and friends will be offered at 4pm next Sunday, preceded by an audio-described touch tour at 2.30pm. Bookings are essential.