This is the life that Martyn built

Humble, gentle, forthright, political, intellectual, honest, seeker of justice, protector of values. Almost to a person the eulogists built their memories on these shared frames of reference. My friend Martyn constructed his life upon them.

You may have noticed the obits - parked away on the Obituaries pages, devoted as they are to the newly departed; or heard reference on the radio, a sound bite here or there.

Perhaps even TV stirred from its slothful, orgiastic embrace with mammon for long enough to rate a fleeting farewell for a man to whom it owes much, but from whose world view it has so stridently diverged. If so, I must have missed it.

In any case, it is a matter of public record. Poet, writer, actor, activist and free-thinker Martyn Sanderson is dead.

The essentials of his CV were in the written appreciations: born 1938 in the back of a Model-T Ford in Granity, near Westport to a writer mother and a missionary father; a scholarship to Christ's College; then on to the dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge where, in England's green and pleasant land, this Antipodean student of divinity lost - at least temporarily - his faith and began to find his own voice.

Along the way he cast off the straitjacket of conventional wisdom. (Not for him the concrete ankle braces of a narrow and rigid spirituality, although in ways he remained the most spiritual of men.)

He was an early leading light in New Zealand professional theatre; he ate up large chunks of the screen during the "new wave" of New Zealand cinema in the late '70s and early '80s, eventually chalking up 26 movies; he featured in television series such and The Governor.

Contemporary audiences might know him best as the querulous fly fisherman in the Lotto TV commercial who sees his bounty plucked from the river by a poaching bungy-jumper.

But that's only a small, and the most visible, part of his story. It was at Oxford he developed a passion for theatre. He returned home in the Sixties energetic, driven and searching . . . He wanted to develop a professional theatre. And he wasn't going to sit around and wait for a long-talked-about proposal of various repertory societies to bear fruit.

He gathered like-minded Wellington people about him - Tim Elliott, Harry Seresin, Peter Bland et al - and just did it. And partly he did it because what he wanted theatre to say was urgent. Downstage, the first fully professional theatre in the country, became an essential spoke in an evolving home-grown "culture".

Ian Mune, another grand old man of stage and screen, put it thus: "There was something about this singular man that drew people together . . . and turned the tide, not just in theatre but in the evolution of the arts as part of our community."

Martyn Sanderson did not found Downstage because he needed to bathe in the glow of acclaim; nor experience the warm embrace of an audience slapping palms raw, or footstamping the foundations loose at an exquisite display of the actor's craft.

No, he built a theatre as much to shake the foundations of his audience's world: to challenge, to confront, to question, to argue, to set a-thinking - and in many respects only then to entertain. This was the central conversation of his career, this restless questing, this compulsive interrogation - political, cultural, artistic. And this impulse describes the largely hidden arc of his real accomplishments.

It must have been a grave disappointment to this gentle giant of the arts to see how craven we have become before the all-conquering mantra of the market; to the notion of "bums-on-seats" and bugger the inherent quality.

He died last Wednesday night having put his heart and soul, and probably what little personal financial resource he and his wife Wanjiku had left, into mounting a production of the East African classic theatrepiece, Muntu. As a tribute to him, the show opened as planned on the Saturday.

We buried him on Monday, on the hill behind the beautiful Rangiatea Church, up north in Otaki, after a moving multicultural service, the eloquence of his children and grandchildren a compelling tribute to his virtues and values. Like the rest of us, of course, he wasn't perfect.

I first met Martyn in London, interviewing him about Patu!, the film of the 1981 Springbok tour protests, on which he had collaborated. Our friendship fastened over the years as he came and went.

He could be fierce, and he had a prodigious appetite for the grog, his distinctive rasping voice stabbing its accusatory finger into your chest, when he'd had a few: "If you want to write something worthwhile, stop talking about it and just do it." If I ever do, it will be in no small part thanks to him.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter