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'A theatrical event like no other'

Updated: May 9

Ewen Coleman for The Dominion Post | 19 January 2017

Ewen Coleman reviews The Undertow for The Dominion Post.


Four women in wartime nurse constumes crowd around the feet of soldiers
What is so amazing about The Undertow series of plays is how director Jim Moriarty and his creative team have moulded 35 performers, from seven to 70, into such a disciplined and unified group. | Aneta Pond 2017

The Undertow by Helen Pearse-Otene, directed by Jim Moriarty

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, until January 29.

Reviewed by Ewen Coleman


A theatrical event like no other is currently taking place in Wellington and is not only unique in its structure – four plays under the one title – but with its content as well.

Developed over several years prior to this current showing, the first of the two plays Part One: The Ragged, set in 1840 Wellington and the second, Part Two: Dog & Bone, set in 1869 Wellington, have been seen and reviewed previously.

These are now playing on alternate nights with the two new plays – Part Three: Public Works, set in 1917 on the Western Front and Part Four: The Landeaters, set somewhere in the here and now.

While each play is a standalone piece of theatre, members of the same Kenning family over the various generations do appear, starting with their arrival in Wellington, as seen in The Ragged.

In Public Works, it is the final stages of World War I, when the major loss of life occurred and the battlefields of Passchendaele and the Somme were a sea of mud with bodies strewn everywhere. Two cousins of the Kenning family are left stranded with nothing but their memories of their families back home, played out in little vignettes during the play. A Belgian nurse attends to their needs and eventually one of them arrives back home in Wellington with the nurse in tow.

The fourth and final play that makes up this exceptional quartet of plays, The Landeaters, is also concerned with war and the land, but this time the aftermath of the Vietnam war. A later generation of the Kenning family is dealing with not only the trauma of his time in Vietnam, but also property developers who are coming to pull down his house and subdivide his land for new housing. Even more importantly, they are trying to remove a 200-year-old willow tree and the buried relics of his ancestors from when they first arrived.

While Public Works isn't as cohesive a piece of writing as The Landeaters, with the various strands not knitting as well together, what is so amazing about these and the other two plays and why they are the epitome of performance art, is the way not only the writer of all four Helen Pearse-Otene has developed her stories, but also how director Jim Moriarty and his creative team have moulded 35 performers, from seven to 70, into such a disciplined and unified group to underscore the stories with incredible visual images.

From sparrows dancing around the stage, to statues, monuments, the jungles of Vietnam and helicopters plus a lot more, these performers move and writhe around the stage in expertly choreographed scenes that are spellbinding.

So, for something distinctively New Zealand, not only in the stories it tells but the way they are told, all four parts of The Undertow are a must see.

Read more on the Stuff news website.

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