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August 2, 2010 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland


When I reviewed Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland’s first iteration in the International Festival earlier this year I said that it was a “brilliant mound of clay needing a firmer shape”. It was too disparate, too liquid to fully satisfy as a theatrical experience. Its many moments of sublime beauty and profound weight felt disconnected from each other, playing as more of a selection of scenes than a cohesive work.

What a difference a few months make. The company and crew of Mark Twain have clearly developed and refined it as they have toured it around the country. The bulk of what made up the first run of the show is still there, but with many minor tweaks, Mark Twain has had its Lego moment. It all clicks and fits together now, it is a whole and complete work. And what a work it is.

This return season of Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland is, easily, the best show I have seen all year. It is almost too good. It is the kind of great that makes you somewhat jealous that you will never produce anything of a similar scale and quality.

The play tells a fictionalised version of the most famous person in the world, Mark Twain, as he tours through New Zealand in the late 1800s to pay off his numerous debts. Stopping in Whanganui, he becomes embroiled in the aftermath of local land wars and, more specifically, the divide it created between the Maori who fought for the Pakeha and those who defended their land. It uses these events as a cipher to discuss much wider issues of the place of both Maori and Pakeha in modern New Zealand.

As much as Mark Twain is an elegant, subtle state-of-the-nation work that is brave enough to know that if it poses the right questions it does not in fact need to answer them, it is also an interesting and invigorating exploration of historiography. Historiography is the theory of how history exists as a system of stories that humanity speaks into existence. Mark Twain, with its stripped, almost-Brechtian staging, hides nothing and takes pleasure in revealing the technique behind their tricks. A boat paddling downstream is simply and effectively evoked with the sharp swishing of a water bottle. Empty coats fill the stage to be a corpse-strewn battlefield. The stage manager becomes almost a sixth member of the cast, bringing on and off smoke machines and hitting gallon bottles for gun shots. In its transparency, in its openness, Mark Twain makes you question the very nature of storytelling and how we communicate and mediate the past. Director John Bolton and writer David Geary expertly balance the wider philosophical and political gestures of the work with perfectly pitched personal stories, expertly expressed by the world-class cast.

Every element of this show is nothing less than breathtaking. From Martyn Robert’s sharp and simple lighting to Kasia Pol’s single white stripe of a set to John Gibson’s emotionally epic soundscape. Everything about Mark Twain works in perfect harmony to produce a stunningly complete and effective experience. The cast (Stephen Papps, Ngapaki Emery, Aaron Cortesi, Allan Henry and Maaka Pohatu) are universally excellent, all giving career-best performances and operating as one of the finest ensembles I’ve ever experienced. The sheer sense of connection and sharing between them was palpable and a commendable achievement in itself.

It is so easy to be apathetic in the theatre. It is so easy to sit there and just not care. Actors are, after all, professional liars. Pretenders skipping dementedly in a made-up land who you pay to see and encourage. The theatre audience is too often a landscape of knowing smirks and pointless, pretentious toffs. It is hard to connect in the theatre. It is often hard to feel in the theatre. This is not the case in Mark Twain. The overwhelming reaction I had after seeing this return season was not one of wonder at the technical brilliance of it or joyful curiosity at the questions it raised, but one of just being blown away by how much I had felt. By showing its process and sharing so much of itself, Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland allows you to connect on a very profound level with what is being undertaken. This is a play with a brain, a heart and a sense of humour. This is everything the theatre tries to be but isn’t.

Basically perfect.

Mark Twain and Me in Māoriland
Written by: David Geary and the company
Director: John Bolton
Cast: Stephen Papps, Ngapaki Emery, Aaron Cortesi, Allan Henry & Maaka Pohatu

At Downstage, 14 – 24 July 2010


About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

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