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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Richly textured, insightful, humurous, sobering and energising

Updated: May 8

John Smythe for Theatreview | 21 January 2015

John Smythe reviews The Ragged presented at Te Papa Tongarewa for Theatreview.


Two actors grasp hands on a dimly lit stage. Lighting illuminates their bare arms and chest
John Smythe writes that Busby Pearse-Otene’s dynamic sound design and Lisa Maule’s brilliant lighting add great value to the production, as do Cara Louise Waretini’s evocative costume designs | Aneta Pond 2017

This is Wellington’s story. It’s 1840 in Te Upoko-o-te-Ika-a-Māui (the head of the fish of Maui), also known as Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara (the great harbour of Tara), aka Poneke (Port Nick /Nicholson), aka Britannia before Wellington is settled on as the name.

Actually, after a prologue that contrasts Māori myth and legend (Potoki, Maui, Kupe) with the departure of settlers from England and the arduous sea voyages they endured, the action starts on the rugged south coast, at Ōwhiro Bay, in the grip of a roaring storm.

Busby Pearse-Otene’s dynamic sound design and Lisa Maule’s brilliantlighting add great value to the production, as do Cara Louise Waretini’s evocative costume designs.

A ‘patupaiarehe’ chorus, whose smart attire hints at toffs and/or their servants with tufts of white plumage, use white sticks ingeniously throughout, initially to help manifest scavenging gulls.

Tanemahuta Gray’s choreography of their set pieces suits the play’s purpose beautifully and is nicely counterpointed by the Settlers’ period dances, coached by Jo and Rodney of ‘Feet with Heat’.

Under the overall direction of Jim Moriarty, Helen Pearse-Otene’s exquisite script finds a generously open performance style to honour its fictionalised evocation of how Māori and Pakeha both clashed and coalesced in the process of colonisation.

In distilling an essence of the Wellington experience, The Ragged captures a nationwide, even global, phenomenon in all its complexity.

While she clearly revisits history with a strong political consciousness, Pearse-Otene is not one to resort to simplistic ‘goodie vs baddie’ plotting, and her play is all the more absorbing for that.

What the storm throws up in Ōwhiro Bay is a naïve but determined new settler, Samuel Kenning (Matthew Düssler), who has rowed from flood-prone “Peetoe nee” determined to make his own mark on the south coast free of the Thorndon clique’s class-ridden control of Wellington’s future.

It’s the Ariki’s mokopuna – Maaka (Tamati Moriarty) and Amiria (Hariata Moriarty) – who challenge his right to stick pegs in their whenua. And their mother, Peata (Martine Gray), agrees with her son that he’s crazy for behaving as if he is the chief of the Ōwhiro Coast.

But the actual Ariki, Te Waipouri (Jim Moriarty), dismisses the warnings of his step daughter and mokopuna, that he has come to steal their land, and welcomes Kenning as a young warrior sent to protect them. He credits Kenning with saving his mokopuna from the sea monster Te Wheke, who was once seen as their guardian but now, thanks to Christian teaching, is feared as dangerous.

The most fascinating aspect of Pease-Otene’s text is Borrigan (Noel Hayvice), Te Waipouri’s taurekareka (slave), an English ex-convict, used and abused by his master as a scapegoat and kicking boy.

Somewhat redolent of Tolkien’s Sméagol /Gollum, his flowery language suggests he was well educated; an upper-class ‘black sheep’ despatched to the colonies to preserve the family’s reputation, perhaps. Apparently deranged, given to fanciful storytelling and obsessed with the idea of becoming King, he has become the mokopuna’s plaything, and vice versa.

In light of his final fate, Borrigan may be seen as the embodiment of all that is foul in the corrupted culture Victorian England seeks to inflict on Aotearoa. And also inherent in this storyline is a potent object-lesson in the backlash consequences of abuse, which makes Te Waipouri instrumental in his own fate rather than a mere victim. There is more than a nod to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in what transpires.

A subplot concerning the death of Peata’s husband (Te Waipouri’s older son) and the conflicting responsibilities and aspirations of his younger brother, Tame (Nepia Takuira-Mita), is also positively Shakespearean in the complex motives it explores.

Tame is destined to become Ariki, so Borrigan’s hopes for freedom lie in him. Meanwhile the itinerant Tame, increasingly a ‘man of the world’, is caught between Peata’s wish for the whanau’s integrity to be maintained by their marrying, and his sophisticated relationship with a young Englishwoman in Port Nicholson, Eliza Mulvey (Sarah McMillan) who is desperate to escape the boredom of Thorndon.  

The Port Nick settlers, with their sense of entitlement and plans for progress, are presided over by the less-than-honourable New Zealand Company’s representative, Ranulf Spooner (Regan Moyes) and his wife Lavinia (Anna Shaw), along with Governor Hobson’s representative, Crippen (Louis Tait).  

Thaddeus Bly (Sean Ashton-Peach) is the well-intentioned missionary whose insistence on the Māori children speaking only English is embraced by the likes of Maaka (“You have to speak English if you want to travel”).  

The choral singing by the whole cast – all 30 of them! – adds further quality to a production that is fully focused in its commitment to telling this richly textured story with flair. Quite why Johnny Cash gets the last word with ‘Hurt’ (originally by Nine Inch Nails) escapes me but that is a minor quibble.

Many insightful gems pepper the play which is deeply rooted in a profoundly researched history, only some of which may be readily available in books or online. Senior high school students, tertiary students and anyone interested in what lies beneath our capital, will find it rewarding.  

This production of The Ragged (which had an early development season in November 2010) is part of Ngāti Toa’s residency at Te Papa, where Te Rākau, will present their work over the next three years.

Helen Pearse-Otene’s quartet of plays about the settlement of Wellington – collectively entitled The underTOW – will continue with Dog and Bone (set in 1869 during the second Taranaki campaign of the New Zealand Wars), then Public Works (set during World War I when the Public Works Act was used to build schools, churches, public buildings and war memorials, but also to alienate Māori from their lands). The final instalment will be The Landeaters “where we face the day after tomorrow”. 

As well as being the start of an important project, The Ragged is a richly textured, insightful, humorous, sobering and energising gift to Wellington and Aotearoa /New Zealand. Not to be missed.

This review was originally published on the Theatreview website. Visit the website below.

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