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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Remembrance of things past

Updated: May 8

Tom Cardy for The Dominion Post | 20 January 2015

Wellington's history is brought to life in the first of a projected quartet of plays, starting in 1840.


A man with a beard gestures with his hands while speaking, a woman with dark hair watches him in the background
Making history: Helen Pearse-Otene, left, and Jim Moriarty – the creative partnership behind The Ragged.

Wellington playwright Helen Pearse-Otene has always been intrigued by history and the past. But a pivotal moment came when she was 16 and snuck into a pub.

"An Irish backpacker asked 'what do you know about the Treaty of Waitangi?'

"I said 'I don't know. That was all in the past. We are all just sort of getting along.'

"He actually sat me down over a couple of pints and told me about the Treaty of Waitangi. He had learned [about] it in Ireland.

"I went away from that experience with a hangover, but also a very profound longing to know why I didn't know my own history."

The fact the Irishman knew more than Pearse-Otene, who is of Ngapuhi, Ngati Ruanui, Ngati Kahungunu and Rongomaiwahine descent, mirrored what was happening at school.

"For me, I've always been interested in New Zealand history - and right back from being in school and not being told a lot about our actual history," she says.

"I've spoken to my own contemporaries and it's been very much about, 'Oh yeah, when we were in high school we only did the birth of the United Nations and the welfare system.

"In seventh form you were looking at the War of Roses and the kings and queens of England. It was very little to do with New Zealand history."

Pearse-Otene went on to study New Zealand history at university and it made its way into her playwriting. As a result many of her plays have been about our past.

The Battalion, staged at the New Zealand Festival in 2006, centred on the Māori Battalion in World War II. Ka Mate Ka Ora in 2008 was about four Kiwi soldiers who served in the Vietnam War.

But it's The Ragged, which opens at Te Papa tonight, which is most likely to resonate with anyone who lives in Wellington, whether Māori or Pakeha.

Set in 1840 and largely around Owhiro Bay on Wellington's south coast, it's the story of newly arrived settlers and missionaries and their interaction with local Māori, including chief Te Waipouri and his people.

The Ragged was first staged in 2010 at St Patrick's College Theatre, directed by Pearse-Otene's partner, acting stalwart Jim Moriarty.

In 2012 it was followed by Dog & Bone, set in 1869 during the New Zealand Wars and featuring the children of Māori and Pakeha characters encountered in The Ragged.

The play is ebing restaged and performed at Te Papa's Soundings Theatre as part of Ngati Toa's residency at the waterfront museum.

Both plays from Wellington-based Te Rākau Theatre Company have a cast of more than 30 - large for any New Zealand play - and it includes Moriarty, Pearse-Otene and their children.

Oearse-Otene and Moriarty, who is of Ngati Toa descent, say Dog & Bone is likely to be staged at Te Papa later this year. Over the next three years Pearse-Otene and Te Rākau will also stage two more plays in the series at Te Papa, so it will become a quartet known as The Undertow, covering more than 200 years of Wellington's history.

Public Works will be set in World War I when the Public Works Act was used to build schools, churches, war memorials and public buildings, but also alienated Māori from their lands.

The characters will be the great grandchildren of the Owhiro Bay Pakeha and Māori featured in The Ragged.

The fourth play, The Landeaters, will be set in the near future. Pearse-Otene has yet to write this play, but has an outline.

"It's still set in the same place and it's still the same family line, but maybe there's been some sort of environmental disaster and it's about a solitary old man.

"He's the last remnant of his family living in that ancestral place and his engagement with the land.

"He is trying to stay one step ahead of the people who are trying to get him off the land."

While the characters in The Ragged are fictional, they are based on Pearse-Otene's extensive research on early Māori and Pakeha in Wellington.

"There are a number of different sources that I went to. Newspaper articles at the time... letters people sent back to England. I spoke to people from different iwi who had a historical interest here and I went into the archives.

"The internet is amazing. Electronic media have now archived a lot of old settler diaries and letters. At the Waitangi Tribunal a lot of the old reports are full of stories about what happened here.

"Even though the characters are fictional they are representational of the people who were here. It's drawn from actual dialogue that existed and happened."

Pearse-Otene says one of the biggest surprises of her research was discovering how badly some settlers had been treated by the New Zealand Company, which promoted colonising the country.

"The thing that really came out for me was how staunch these settlers were. They were really dicked around by the New Zealand Company. In the news we have finance companies who have mucked investors around.

"This is the same thing that happened with the New Zealand Company - right at the beginning of the settlement of Wellington," she says.

"These were poor people who were either on an adventure or were escaping from the industrial revolution and a terrible class system, They come out here and they're dumped on the shores. This is where they meet up with Māori and most Māori had no idea what was going on.

"We have that tension, that clash of cultures of these two people who are thrown together into this situation."

But Pearse-Otene says The Ragged isn't a "blame game" about Māori and Pakeha relations.

"It's the beginning of trying to understand each other, but for all intents and purposes, stuff happens."

This story was originally published in The Dominion Post. Read an archived copy of the story below.

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