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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Elqouent and insightful: A richly wrought weave

Updated: May 8

John Smythe for Theatreview | 22 January 2016

John Smythe reviews Dog & Bone at Te Papa Tongarewa for Theatreview.


Dogs challenge us, greet us and put us on our mettle as we enter Soundings Theatre at Te Papa. The ambivalence we experience is spot on: we are strangers encroaching on th

A man in a tophat and a boy in stage clothes stare intently into the audience
Helen Pearse-Otene’s Dog & Bone – directed by Jim Moriarty and presented by Te Rākau Theatre as part of their Ngāti Toa residency at Te Papa Tongarewa – had a development season at Whitireia Performance Centre in 2012.

eir territory but aren’t we entitled to be here? Have we not been invited and/or paid our way?

As we settle (in our seats), some of the dogs seek only love and friendship.

Some fight with each other, others get amorous with each other, some are avid for the next adventure, a few older ones rest ...

Thanks to the thorough observation and acting skills that inform this large Te Rākau Theatre cast’s depiction of dogs of differing species, we may feel reassured that dogs can be man’s best friend.

But there is a stealth in the way some silently come into the space.

They are upright, they have tomahawks and they howl. (Te Ara tells us the now-extinct kuri, brought by waka to Aoteroa, by Kupe and others, did not bark: they howled). The programme credits them as Ngāti Irawaru (a fictitious iwi, I think).

The show proper starts with a hearty welcome, from a character we’ll come to know as Rutledge (Noel Hayvice), to The Wellington Canine Fanciers Dog Show.

The qualities of strength, humility, dedication and obedience are extolled. We are told it is natural for a dog to obey its master, that there’s no such thing as an independent dog. The stated fate of those that don’t exhibit those virtues is salutary.

Māori say kuri whakapapa to man; Pākehā say they’re a common cur.

This prologue powerfully and wittily sets the stage for the substantive play. Helen Pearse-Otene’s Dog & Bone – directed by Jim Moriarty and presented by Te Rākau Theatre as part of their Ngāti Toa residency at Te Papa Tongarewa – had a development season at Whitireia Performance Centre in 2012. It is the second in the ‘underTOW’ quartet, which begins with The Ragged, produced at Soundings this time last year. This time next year the full quartet will be played in sequence (see below).

The setting is Te Miti (the undertow), also known as Ōwhiro Bay, the south coast beyond Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara / Port Nicholson / Poneke /Wellington. And this is community theatre at its best: of the people, by the people, for the people – of Te Miti, Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand and the world at large. Its distillation of human experience resonates universally, as exemplified in the post-show ‘open floor’ kōrero, when a delighted Kenyan theatre artist expresses pleasure at recognising her story too.  

Helen Pearse-Otene’s focus is on ordinary people trying to make a go of it in the late 1860s. Did any have a dog’s show of realising their dreams of a better life? With the wisdom of hindsight we can answer that better than they could, in the thick of continuing struggles over land. The British Regiments might have left but the Armed Constabulary is defending the interests of the ever-hungry ‘landeaters’ in Taranaki as Ngāti Ruanui, led by Riwha Tītokowaru, battle to retain the sovereignty promised in Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Pearse-Otene distils this struggle into the story of the Kenning brothers: Tāiki (Errol Anderson) and Kuritea (Jamie McCaskill), descended from The Ragged’s Ariki of Te Miti, Te Waipōuri, whose widowed daughter-in-law married British settler Samuel Kenning to give her children (Maaka and Amiria) a stepfather.  

Tāiki is now married to Hannah-May Beamish (Sandi Malesic). Lustfully in love, they inhabit the Kenning Homestead at Te Miti along with her father (Louis Tait), which makes Beamish the manuhiri. And because Tāiki believes the newspaper stories of the savagery of Tītokowaru and his followers, he works as a scout for the Armed Constabulary.

Kuritea, however (note ‘kuri’ in his name), has joined the Ngāti Ruanui in their fight and has seen the landeaters’ atrocities first hand, driven not least by there being a ten pound bounty on the severed heads of warriors.

Beamish’s son Robbie (Joshua Dominikovich) is an artist and wants to paint the wonders of this new land but his father insists he join the constabulary and pays for his officer’s commission.

As their stories unfold, provoking us to a full range of emotional and cerebral responses, ‘refugees’ from Poneke – Mrs Berry (Isobel Mebus) and the young women she has ‘adopted’ to save them from degradation; Rutledge and his minion, Meech (Lachlan Mackintosh) – descend on the Kenning Homestead to be accorded the hospitality Tāiki’s tikanga demands.

The intersecting strands and layers of this richly wrought weave are deftly directed by Jim Moriarty with strong choreographic assistance from Tanemahuta Gray. The Soundings Theatre is not very intimate and is acoustically challenging for the spoken voice. While this leads to a somewhat declamatory style that works against allowing the characters to ‘be’ in a way that deeply compels our empathy, it is redolent of the colonial performance conventions of that time, which adds a different kind of authenticity.

The central trio – Anderson, Malesic and McCaskill – embody their roles with great skill. The relationship between Tāiki and Hannah-May is extremely compelling, and everything intensifies when Kuritea comes into the mix.

An intriguing relationship evolves between Beamish and one of Mrs Berry’s girls, Miss Emily, beautifully played by Hariata Moriarty. Isobel Mebus is in splendid voice as Mrs Berry. And Jim Moriarty himself offers a potent cameo as an Irish soldier settler.

There is great eloquence in Pearse-Otene’s often poetic script yet it plays easily and authentically. She is a consummate dramatist whose work is, I believe, destined for classical status.

Excursions into subjective dream-reality add to our perception of subjective truth, in insightful counterpoint to the relatively objective facts about a history of which most New Zealanders (including myself) remain woefully ignorant. A reference to the enslavement of Māori prisoners of war being shipped south to develop Port Chalmers (Otago) adds a further geographical sounding to the reverberant mix.

Cara Waretini’s costume designs, Busby Otene’s sound design and Lisa Maule’s lighting all add to the production values.

While there are some weaknesses in the cast of 27, their efficacy as an ensemble is emphatic. Part of me dreams of what these plays could be like if they were mounted by a large, fully professional company of top talent (imagine the Kiwi equivalent of the British National Theatre’s production of Warhorse). On the other hand there is an intrinsic value in the connection these performers have to the place these stories are rooted in. It brings us back to why humans invented theatre in the first place – of, for and by the people.

Together, The Ragged, Dog & Bone and the two yet to complete the underTOW series – Public Works (set during WWI when the Public Works Act further alienate Māori from the lands), and The Landeaters, set the day after tomorrow – will contribute enormously to the growing call for full recognition of Aoteroa New Zealand’s own war history.

Not least because (like the Kennings) so many families can now whakapapa back to both sides of the New Zealand Wars, such knowledge is fundamental to our nation building.

This review was originally published on the Theatreview website. See more below.

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