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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Powerful, profound, haunting, healing: a must see

Updated: May 9

Lynda Chanwai-Earle for Theatreview | 24 July 2022

Lynda Chanwai-Earle reviews The Swing for Theatreview.


A girl sits on the floor beneath a rope swing
Three years in the making, Pearse-Otene began writing The Swing as part of her PhD in Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington – Te Herenga Waka | Aneta Pond 2020

From the moment the audience enters the venue, we are embraced by a fierce, dramatically choreographed pōwhiri (welcoming) by the Kaitito Nekehanga (Choreographers) Kimberley Skipper and Jeremy Davis. It’s a signature of Te Rākau Theatre’s kaupapa and seasoned Director Jim Moriarty’s style. Helen Pearse-Otene’s play The Swing has already begun.

Te Rākau’s programme clearly states what to expect in terms of content trigger warnings for the audience, with offers of facilitated kōrero and support from experienced mental health practitioners at the end of the play: The Swing is about sexual abuse, family violence and suicide.

The audience is seated across from each other in Tony De Goldi’s deceptively simple, stunning traverse set design. Pivotal props – a child’s swing and leaves – are illuminated by lighting designer Lisa Maule’s subtle touch.

Like an intricate kōwhaiwhai pattern, the present-day intergenerational story of incest and family violence is woven with the ancient pūrākau (ancestor narrative) of Tānemahuta, who raped his daughter Hinetītama.

In her rage and grief, Hinetītama took her life and became Hinenui Te Pō (Goddess of Death) and brought about the mortality of humankind.

Based on true life stories, The Swing sweeps us into the familiar, acutely uncomfortable drama of incest and rape. These are stories that, if we are to be honest, affect too many of us, across communities, across cultures and across the globe.

Yet The Swing, deftly written by Pearse-Otene, has huge heart. It’s a gently told story that demands to be heard. Her play confronts us with the hardest subject matter, yet it is full of hope. Rather than demonising, Pearse-Otene humanises the characters who are perpetrators of violence, to take us on a vital journey towards healing.

Using kaupapa Māori research methods and therapy models, Te Rākau Theatre have explored the ancient pūrākau of Tānemahuta to show how this story is universal, as humankind’s allegory towards understanding why incest and family violence are universally forbidden, and importantly, to show us ways of embracing the issues.

Programme notes explain; “The Swing came about as a community-led response to current thinking in sexual abuse services and therapy practices – what works and what doesn’t. It’s the creative outcome of a research project carried out by adult survivors of incest and child sexual abuse, as well as parents of survivors and their supporters.”

Three years in the making, Pearse-Otene began writing The Swing as part of her PhD in Psychology at Victoria University of Wellington – Te Herenga Waka. The process included marae-based wānanga and performance enquiry in theatre, which sought (in her words) “to evoke the healing and educational potential of pūrākau in the context of whare tapere, or the house of entertainment (theatre).”

The actors double up in their roles as present-day characters, and characters from the pūrākau of Tānemahuta. In the present-day story children Kath and her brother Rewa are painted powerfully by Kimberley Skipper and Jeremy Davis. These siblings experience horrific abuse at the hands of their father Sid, a character physically absent but present in a haunting soundtrack throughout.

The siblings grow up in all too familiar ’80s small-town Aotearoa. The community has turned a blind eye and worse still, mates of Sid, men who are community leaders, have drunkenly participated in the statutory rape of Kath as a child. Even the local cop has turned a blind eye. The intergenerational family violence is perpetuated when Rewa rapes his own daughter Manea. With no dialogue, Hariata Moriarty gives a striking performance as daughters Manea/Hinetītamai who, in their grief, have taken their lives.

To find restorative justice and peace from her own grief, Manea’s mother Jen, played by Angie Meiklejohn, is taking her daughter’s ashes back to the family marae. Jen and Rewa’s surviving son Luke (played by Kauri Leach) shows us how this community violence has impacted on the next generation in a small-town torn apart by dysfunction. Why the play has been titled The Swing is finally revealed in a spine-tingling moment by Kimberley Skipper as Kath.

The traverse set means we the audience are aware of each other throughout, and importantly at the end of the play, when refreshments appear and the facilitated kōrero takes place with the cast and crew of Te Rākau, we have a chance to express our responses. If we wish, we can share our own stories in this safe environment.

This is perhaps the most important part of the whole outstanding theatrical experience, which demands that the role of drama be more than just entertainment.

In the three decades or more of Te Rākau Theatre performance, their kaupapa has demanded that theatre should be transformative and healing.

To be accessible during these covid times Te Rākau has also filmed this production, so that the play may be used as an online interagency educational resource. They also hope to tour The Swing across our country to where it is needed the most, to Aotearoa’s small-towns and communities where stories like this are crying out to be heard, and healing is waiting to happen.

Without judgment, this is a chance for the audience to recognise themselves in The Swing – or, if not ourselves, we must all know somebody who has been affected by family violence. The Swing is a powerful and profound call for meaningful action; haunting and healing. See it. Spread the word. Help with the healing.

(Full disclosure as the reviewer: I am of Ngāti Hainamana and Pākehā descent. I spent six years working with Te Rākau Hua O Te Wao Tapu (Te Rākau Theatre) from 1995 to 2000. During this time, I had the privilege of working with the rōpū as a performer and script facilitator. Te Rākau brought tikanga Māori theatre practice not only into theatre venues but also into schools, prisons, marae and small-town communities across the country).

This article was originally published on the Theatreview website. See the website for more.

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