Kia Ora, Shakespeare

25 April 2012

Leading the Globe Theatre’s World Shakespeare Festival off with a roar, a New Zealand theatre company bring bravado and firm tattooed buttocks to bear (and bare) on the Bard.

Today is ANZAC Day, a national holiday and an event of huge significance in the lives of most New Zealanders, but one that goes largely unrecognised in the lives of most Brits – in much the same way that the massive human sacrifice of the colonies only merits a footnoted mention in most British accounts of the First and Second World Wars, then and now. I blogged a while ago about my recent experience of becoming a naturalised British citizen, and my recurring suspicions that, despite having a coveted red British passport in my jeans pocket, I’ll still be, in the eyes of the Brits, just another Kiwi interloper.

With that in mind, last night I had an unexpected and very joyous re-embracement of my Kiwi-ness, courtesy of a kick-ass Maori production of Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. In a particularly inspired piece of programming as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad, the Globe are hosting the “Globe To Globe” season: productions of all of Shakespeare’s plays by 37 international theatre companies, and all in languages other than English (except for Henry V, which will be performed by the Globe’s own company, and close the season). Opening the festival in rousing form was (as the Globe’s website sweetly says), “the group who have travelled furthest” – the Maori theatre company Ngakau Toa, who re-imagined Troilus and Cressida as a tale of inter-tribal warfare in Aotearoa.

I was somewhat iffy about the festival’s credentials. While it seemed like an interesting way to celebrate world theatre, it seemed fairly removed from a real appreciation of Shakespeare, and smacked suspiciously of diversity do-gooders at the Arts Council brainstorming about representing “multicultural London”. To me, the Bard’s appeal has always been about the wit and musicality of his language and the keenness of his psychological insights, rather than his stories, most of which he nicked from his predecessors anyway. Unless you have an in-depth knowledge of the language being performed, watching a drama in a foreign language can surely only ever be colourful spectacle or an amusing novelty, rather than the engrossing, challenging piece of linguistic communication that I want theatre to be. I was even less impressed by the thought of seeing Troilus and Cressida in Maori, and imagined it would be big on macho haka (war dance) sequences, but low on psychological insight or anything else of note.

I’ve since realised that both of those assumptions were complete horseshit, but more on that later. What finally sold me on going to see Troilus and Cressida were the buttocks. And thank God for that instinct. It’s one I clearly need to cherish. I was reliably informed by several friends who still ferret around in New Zealand’s theatre luvvie badlands that the cast would be packed with hot muscular Maori boys wearing tattoos, feathers and not much else, and that if nothing else, it would be a massive beefcake fest. This opinion was confirmed by the fan-fluttering excitement of the Guardian theatre reviewer, who gave Ngakau Toa’s opening night performance a 4-star review, who wrote somewhat breathlessly of “the surprise” of

“the sight of Shakespeare’s Trojans and Greeks recast as preening Maori warriors, prowling across the stage like prize-fighting cocks, clad in loincloths, feathers, tattoos and precious little else.”

A couple of photos of the cast – all strapping young lads with All Black-worthy physiques arrayed in “less is more” costumes – had sealed the deal. I was going.

As it happened, it was a wonderful production – fresh and exciting, dazzlingly energetic, and a genuinely smart re-working of Shakespeare’s original that flattered the source material as well as giving it a uniquely Antipodean spin. Such, it seems, is the power of Shakespeare, to appeal to cultures all over the world and become a conduit for exploring humanity in pockets of the world never travelled to or imagined by the Elizabethans. Translating the Bard out of English strips his works of the pomposity of his “ownership” by Britain or as another dead white male littering the literary canon, and re-establishes him as a playwright for all people everywhere. Although I (still rather shamefully) don’t speak or read Maori, and could only recognise the odd word here and there (“aroha”, “tupuna”, “turangawaewae”, “tena koutou”, “rangatira”, all leftover from high school Te Reo classes and the occasional episode of Te Karere, the Maori TV news broadcast), the wonderful expressiveness of the actors’ faces, voices and bodies told the story beautifully, and left you in no doubt of the complex emotional chords running through the play.

The injection of traditional Maori tribal culture into Troilus and Cressida, these days a little known or performed play, reinvigorates the story by couching its politics in the context of an (almost still) living warrior culture. The success of Ben Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator and their more recent, trashier remakes, have turned representations of the Greeks and Romans into something of a sword-and-sandals soft porn flick. Not that there’s anything wrong with Gladiator porn, mind, but it’s had the effect of making classical stories feel both over-familiar and also far removed from the modern world. By contrast, Maori cultural performance and ceremonies maintain a stronger and more direct link with its warrior past. (It wasn’t that far back in time when Maori were still dressed in the outfits seen on stage at the Globe, fighting the ancestors of the English folk in the audience for their rights to their own soil). Maori culture feels alien enough from British culture to be genuinely startling, and yet familiar enough – though exposure to the haka at the start of rugby games – to make this piece of theatre come alive. Maori cultural ceremonies are, by their very nature, intensely performative and theatrical, so it seems completely natural to see kapahaka and waiata performed on stage: and where better but at the Globe, the reconstructed temple to the greatest playwright of them all, and a pilgrimage site for theatrelovers from all over the world.

All that being said, I still went for the buttocks. Which were delivered, in quantities even I couldn’t have imagined: pert, muscled, heavily tattooed and luscious. But even so, I still got so much more. The fantastic cast, lead by Rawiri Paratene, who also directed, gave an electrifying performance, starting with an awesome 4-minute haka to introduce the Trojan and Roman tribes. From there, it seldom lagged in energy, surprisingly finding some quiet contemplative moments amid the fight scenes. As Troilus and Cressida, the inordinately pretty Kimo Houltham and Awhina Rose Henare Ashby played the excitement of instant true love and the agony of parting and deception beautifully well, and there was delightful comic playing from almost all the cast, particularly from Paratene and a waggish young wahine playing the mischievous servant.

But mostly this was an interpretation which went to the heart of all war stories: the perils of inflated male ego, and the innate destructiveness of any society governed by a macho honour code and “might means right” violence to win disputes. This is also, I think, a problem that lies at the heart of Maori culture. As much as many of us fantasise over the alpha warrior who’d rip out and eat the hearts of his enemies before dragging us back to his cave to ravage all our orifices for a week, in reality it’s not a great fantasy to invest too much in, or to place as the ideal model for masculinity in an enlightened culture. I’ve often struggled with aspects of Maoridom that favour macho aggression over intellect or wisdom, the dark flipside to which is often blatant homophobia. The state of modern Maori manhood still seems confused between “traditional” expectations of leadership, siring children and belonging to a group, which sit uneasily with more recent cultural trends favouring the rights of the individual.

This paradox is something that Paratene’s production captures brilliantly: the young bucks in the cast walk around like supermodels, fully aware of and enjoying the fact that they’re being admired from all angles. The two waggish actors playing Achilles and Patroclus have an especially good time, cheerfully clenching their buttocks to the audience and then smiling and winking as they let us know their pleasure in being admired. On a more serious note, the elder statesmen and leaders, including the particularly fine male specimens playing Agamemnon and Hector, played the mana (authority) of their roles proudly, unapologetically and without irony. This was crucial for revealing the play’s central concerns with the uses and abuses of power. As the Guardian reviewer wisely commented (once he’d got over the “surprise” of the buttocks, no doubt), “all the men on stage seem doomed to act out honour codes that leave little room for anything other than sound and fury.”

This is a theme that’s been explored in recent Maori art, most notably Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors, a grim study of urban disenfranchisement and domestic violence, which was made into a brutal, powerful film by Lee Tamihori. Both the film and book became major talking points in New Zealand, revealing uncomfortable hidden truths in what was popularly imagined to be a happily bi-cultural society, prompting national awareness of domestic violence, and the rapid review of laws regarding police intervention in domestic disputes. Most controversially, OWW challenged Maori to resolve their broken cultural legacy and reconsider the dark side of a patriarchal warrior-based culture. In its own, more abstracted way, Troilus and Cressida asked the same questions of Maori culture, laying bare the ambiguous appeal of and danger inherent in the honour codes seen on stage. Te Haumihiata Mason’s translation of T&C was an unusually elegant piece of co-opting of Shakespeare’s language to express contemporary concerns of interest to New Zealanders, which also highlighted, as Shakespeare did himself for his own times, that the same problems in human culture have been with us for centuries.

I felt enormous pride to be a New Zealander, standing in a replica Shakespearean theatre in central London, watching a New Zealand theatre group perform a play written and first performed in much the same spot at about the same time in history that our country was first being discovered by the outside world. It was a very fine performance, among the best that I’ve seen in nearly a decade of living here, and it was, in a small way, part of me. Though it seems a million years ago and mostly-forgotten to me now, I still got a shiver up my spine when I heard the wailing cry of Cassandra’s waiata, or the dissonant whisper of the koauau (flute) or the haunting sound of the purerehua (whirring wind instrument) played in the performance. I was pleasantly surprised to recognise certain jokes, turns of phrase or facial expressions, and there was something comfortingly familiar about seeing the brash, cheeky sexuality of Maori men and the take-no-prisoners staunchness of Maori women on stage. It felt, strangely but happily, like a taste of home.

The performance was rapturously received by what appeared to be a mixed New Zealand expatriate and European audience, and it stood very proudly as a rip-roaring start to the Globe to Globe festival. Plays at the Globe always finish with a dance, regardless of their content, so there was a nice synchronicity in having the play finish with a kick-ass haka and waiata, to which some of the Maori contingent in the audience responded in kind. It’ll take me a long time to stop laughing as I recall the nice English lady standing behind me, smiling through clenched teeth as she pretended not to be terrified at members of the audience just behind her launching into their own haka, then thinking better of it and telling her equally terrified friend, “It’s their custom, you know.” Lady, it sure as hell is – and though I’d rather audition to be head fluffer to the cast than ever return a haka myself, I’m more than happy to stand up and be counted as one of “them”.

It was, in summary, a great alternative way to celebrate ANZAC Day. So ka pai to all involved, for reminding this little Kiwi of just how choice it is to be from Noo Ziland. (Thanks also to Tim, my loyal fellow theatregoer, who smiled uncomplainingly through my endless exhortations over the fineness of the buttocks.)


  1. I think your sharp and perceptive critique of British (or should that be English) shakesperian imperialism needs a little nuancing (I did wince when I heard that the one play in the Globe Festival to be done in English was Henry V) . The English got used a long time ago to other people doing things brillantly to ‘their’ Bard whether Bellini, Thomas, Verdi, Bernstein or Luhrman – and I think they rather like it in moderation, as they can lazily take credit for it, and congratulate themselves on their tolerant and flexible accommodation of diversity (which is I suspect just another form of colonial arrogance, but hey, it’s what we Brits are good at, alas.) We don’t really own Shakespeare any more than anyone else does – or they own the English language (although I’d like to be able to fine Americans (and only Americans) for misusing it) – and in practice we prefer Shakespeare light (where you don’t have to wrestle with his dense language which can be intolerably difficult, and in a couple of generations will be indiscipherable heard cold) see the BBC Shakepeare playlets from 5 years ago that did the plots without the words and everyone else said was brilliant just because Billie Piper was in it; I in a cultural huff of superiority didn’t watch it). So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not sure that this was Shakespeare – and also that I am not sure that that matters. The point was ‘did it live on stage? ‘ I tcertainly did in your commentary.

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