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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

The Land Never Forgets: A Review of The Undertow

Adam Goodall for The Pantograph Punch | 25 January 2017

Adam Goodall reviews Te Rākau Theatre's The Undertow, a staggering eight-hour drama that holds New Zealand's colonial past, present and future up to the light.


An older man stares up into the rafters, a war scene with a helicopter plays out behind him
The land and its memories are always at the centre of Helen Pearse-Otene’s The Undertow | Aneta Pond 2017

We’re going to repair the land when the war’s over, the nurse says. We’re going to replace the mud with grass, the pillboxes with trees, the bombed-out houses with warm and welcome homes. We’ll change the land, put our suffering behind us.

Hamuera Kenning, a New Zealand soldier stuck in a Passchendaele purgatory, recognises her optimism. He’d like nothing more than to share it. “My country’s been trying to do that for years,” he tells her. “But the land never forgets.”

The land and its memories are always at the centre of Helen Pearse-Otene’s The Undertow, a four-part history of Wellington and New Zealand presented by her and Jim Moriarty’s storied company, Te Rākau Theatre.

This eight-hour history is woven in with the history of the Kenning whānau, tracking them from the circumstances of their taking the Kenning name in The Ragged to their final act of resistance against the capitalists thirsty for their kāinga in The Landeaters.

Over those eight hours, their land is loved, used, threatened, abused and ultimately stolen from them.

Te Rākau communes with that land under yellow and purple lights, diffused by fog, calling to life the ghosts of those four generations.

The commune begins in The Ragged with Manchester-born Samuel Kenning (Matthew Dussler). In 1840, Kenning comes to Te Miti, the papakāinga of aging chief Te Waipouri (Moriarty) and his hapu, to claim the land he’s bought from the New Zealand Company.

Quickly discovering that he’s been defrauded, Kenning first attempts to claim the foreshore as whenua taunaha then reluctantly accepts Te Waipouri’s hospitality, hospitality offered against the advice of his brash daughter-in-law Peata (Kimberley Skipper).

The wealthy Pākehā settlers at Port Nicholson want Te Miti, though, as does Governor Hobson, and the Governor’s sent his man Crippen (Zechariah Julius-Donnelly) to acquire it by any means necessary.

Read more on the Pantograph Punch website.

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