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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Kaupapa 'engaging at every level'

Updated: May 9

11 February 2020

John Smythe reviews the development season of The Swing for Theatreview.


A large group of people gather together for a photo, some crouched on the groun and others celebrating behind them
John Smythe reviews the development season of The Swing | Aneta Pond 2020

As a Theatre Marae play being presented in a short development season to an invited audience only, this iteration of The Swing was not to be reviewed.

Then on the day of its premiere, its makers decided it was ready to take its place in the written record of Te Rākau plays by Kaituhi/ Playwright Helen Pearse-Otene, brought to life by Kaitohu/ Director and their Paepae Auaha/ Creative Team and Kaiwhakaari/ Performers (most recently The Undertow quartet).

Yes indeed, it most certainly does cry out to be acknowledged, celebrated and supported – on behalf of all those it seeks to serve.

But first, an awareness of its cultural context and evolution will help us understand how profoundly important and powerful this work is for multiple levels of our social infrastructure.

“Theatre Marae applies the complementary spiritual, social and political concepts of the Greek theatre and Marae into a performance hui,” a programme note reminds us.

The Swing has evolved from Helen Pearse-Otene’s two decades of working with survivors, perpetrators and family members as a programme facilitator, group therapist, researcher and now as a registered psychologist.

A community led response to abuse therapy and services

It “has come about as a community led response to current thinking in sexual abuse services and therapy practices,” Pearse-Otene notes.

“For most Māori drawn to group settings that I have worked in, they have reported experiences of 1:1 talk therapies being negative, retraumatising, judgemental and culturally irrelevant. Kaupapa Māori group based therapies and holistic services that are provided in Māori communities such as iwi social services are effective but underfunded (or not funded at all), and do not meet the standards for ACC sensitive claims services.

It appears, then, that while The Tohunga Suppression Act, 1907 – introduced by James Carroll (known to Māori as Timi Kara) and supported by Āpirana Ngata, both later knighted – was repealed by the Maori Welfare Act, 1962, a residue remains that continues to impede the efficacy of tikanga Māori.

“More recent studies in what works best in trauma therapies is complementary with traditional Māori practices that invoke body oriented and group based approaches to healing,” Pearse-Otene concludes.

“This has informed my current research on applying the healing and cultural potential of pūrākau in the context of the whare tapere (traditional house of entertainment).”

The ancient legend (pūrākau) she brings to The Swing’s contemporary story of a whānau struggling to recover from the shadow of ngau whiore (incest; sexual abuse) and whakamomori (suicide) recalls the coupling of Tānemahuta – the god of forests and birds – with his daughter Hinetītama, to become the progenitors of humankind.

When she realised he was her father, Hinetītama fled in disgust to the underworld and became Hinenuitepō, the goddess of death. Thus was death brought to mortal beings. (Intriguingly there are resonances here with the Greek legend of King Oedipus and the Christian lore of original sin.)

And so to The Swing and this ‘in development’ presentation.

A welcome, a challenge, agency reclaimed

The audience, chatting and waiting in a corridor, is silenced and riveted by the karanga and steady advance of a kāhui of rhythmic poi-wielding wāhine toa (Arihia Hayvice, Nova Te Hāpua and Paige Wilson) led by Hariata Moriarty, who will embody the spirit of Manea in the story to come.

Their call is simultaneously a summoning of the life force, a welcome, a challenge and an assertion of mana; of agency reclaimed. 

They lead us into the studio space and huddle at the centre as Kaitito/ Ringa Puoro (composer/ musician) Haami Hawkins plucks his guitar and we find our seats on either side of the traverse space.

The titular swing takes centre stage, a woman is hoisted onto it and a disembodied male voice seductively croons the old 1918 pop song ‘K-K-K-Katy’ – which Kath (Maria-Rose MacDonald) hates. And the Kāhui and Manea remain watchful, as they do throughout, a-tremble with tāwiri.

The posturing, taiaha-brandishing man who advances on Kath turns out to be Rewa (Manuel Solomon). A blend of stylised and relatively realistic action evokes the past and present, the living and dead, the ancient pūrākau and two much more recent cases of sexual abuse.  

Ingeniously crafted to avoid expository dialogue, linear narrative and any hint of simplistic moralising, the action – enhanced by the choreography of Kimberley Skipper and Manuel Solomon, and Hawkins’ music – swirls and spirals moko-like (or like a twisting, swaying swing?) to encapsulate the stories.

Thus it emerges that Rewa, the protective older brother of Kath, left their apparently happy childhood and home to be with his Pākehā partner Jen (Angie Meikeljohn), with whom he fathered Manea and Luke (Tamati Moriarty).

But Kath had been subjected to sexual abuse by their father, and by old Mr Goff (a local Town Councillor) and their mates. And Rewa has since gone on to abuse his own daughter, Manea. The sins of the ancestors and father have been visited on new generations. And Manea has taken her own life.

The ‘present’ action, two years on, sees Jen and Luke bring Manea’s ashes to Kath so they can be interred at the urupā – via the marae for a proper tangihana, Kath insists. When Rewa arrives, unwelcome, having completed a sexual offenders treatment programme that has earned him early release, his redemption is by no means a foregone conclusion; nothing will bring back Manea.

Any inclination we might feel towards giving Rewa a break – especially given Solomon’s compelling performance – is brought up short when Luke blames his mother, Jen, for “not being a proper wife”. There is still lots to be resolved and much healing work to be done in this community.  

More prosaically, Brendan Goff (Noel Hayvice), the small town lawyer, and Mike (Saul Kolio), the local cop, drop by to convey the council’s concerns about the safety of the swing on the old macrocarpa tree. I see this as a metaphor for the issue or problem many would just like to go away; to be consigned to darkness and forgotten. But of course it doesn’t work that way.

Humour born of insight and truth offsets the pain, anguish and inevitable confrontations. MacDonald and Meikeljohn especially bring deep feeling and great strength to their interactions with Solomon’s utterly human Rewa. And the whole cast is powerfully aligned to the purpose of this mahi – which doesn’t end when the play concludes.

kaupapa breaking the silence

While many people’s experiences over many years have informed the making of The Swing, its presentation as marae theatre opens a space for “Bringing this talk into the world of light,” as Jim Moriarty puts it, “that we may help to unravel the hurt and support safer pathways forward for everyone affected by nga whiore and whakamomori.” 

Helen Pearse-Otene is a registered and practising Psychologist pursuing her PHD and Jim is a Registered Psychiatric Nurse. They have spent the last few months working therapeutically with a group of women who were sexually harmed by family members, in response-based practices, exploring ways of moving forward. And here they make themselves available to anyone who needs support or who wants to be connected with the appropriate support communities.

The creative mahi of Lisa Maule (Kaiwhakahaere Whakaaturanga/ Kaihoahoa Tūrama: Production Manager & Lighting Designer), Tony De Goldi (Kaihoahoa Pai Whakaari: Set Designer), Cara Louise Waretini (Kaihoahoa Kākahu: Costume Designer) and Aneta Pond (Kaihautū: Producer) must also be acknowledged, along with everyone else in the Te Rākau whānau.

As theatre, The Swing is totally engaging at every level. As a kaupapa for ‘breaking the silence’ it is invaluable. It deserves unstinting support and a long life on marae, in community halls, on campuses – and in theatres and at festivals that see their roles as truly serving the interests of their communities.

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