The play’s the thing
The allure of Shakespeare keeps Rawiri Paratene returning to the stage – and signing up for a season of the Pop-up Globe phenomena, writes. ‘Then the lights went down and dry ice came up, and the lights came up on the battlements, and the soldiers were th
Jack van Beynen
As he nears pensionable age, the veteran of stage and screen has thought about winding down. If he could, Rawiri Paratene says he would drop it all and head north to live out his golden years. Perhaps a little place on the Hokianga harbour, where he spent his early childhood.
‘‘But then something will come along, that’s the problem, some juicy apple will present itself, and I’ll just take it and munch before I realise,’’ he says.
‘‘That’s why my wife cackles, because I get myself into a position where I probably could start slowing down, but then I put something up there that means I have to knock that one off, and then ... in 10 years time I might be saying the same thing. I hope not.’’
The latest project keeping Paratene occupied is his role in the Pop-up Globe’s 2017 season.
As a member of the theatre’s allmale King’s Company, Paratene has roles in two of the season’s four productions of plays by William Shakespeare: history Henry V and comedy As You Like It.
Paratene has been a regular fixture on New Zealand stages and screens for more than 40 years. If you don’t know him from his early work as part of the Mercury Theatre Company, you might know him from Play School. If not, perhaps What Becomes of the BrokenHearted. Maybe the stern Koro in Whale Rider, or from Footrot Flats.
Throughout his career, Paratene has returned time and again to the works of Shakespeare. He has been Seyton in Macbeth, Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, Edgar in King Lear. Banquo in Wellington, Romeo in Dunedin, Hamlet in England, Polonius in Barbados. In 2011, he helped produce a Te Reo Maori version of Troilus and Cressida.
However, his first exposure to the Bard was through comic books.
As a child in the South Auckland suburb of Otara, Paratene was hooked on Classic Comics – classic works of literature condensed into illustrations and speech bubbles. The series’ version of Julius Caesar left a particular impression on him.
‘‘I learned to read quite late, I wasn’t a good reader and I’m still not a good reader, I’m not well-read. Most of my reading that I’ve done in my life has been research to do with plays that I’m in, or researching areas that I’m writing about, and so I’m not one who reads for pleasure.
‘‘But these comics’ stories are fantastic, and I read the Classic Comics version of Julius Caesar, and whoa! It was full of intrigue and conspiracy and a little bit of soothsaying and a little bit of brotherhood, betrayal, all the stuff that is attractive to a boy in terms of storytelling.’’
He learned far more about the play through the comic books than when he studied it in third form – a class that didn’t even require students to read the actual text.
A young Paratene stumbled across another version of Julius Caesar ona Sunday afternoon watching the regular Sunday Cinema segment on TV.
It was Shakespeare who inspired Paratene to take up acting.
He was about 16, and on a school trip to see Hamlet at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre. The play was Paratene’s first outside of school productions – when he thought of a theatre, a silver screen not a stage was what came into his head. When he and his classmates were shepherded into the theatre, he thought it was a holding area where the teachers could marshal their pupils.
‘‘I was mystified and so the exercise quickly deteriorated for me and – to use acting terms – my objective became to flirt with the Catholic girls who were up in the circle,’’ Paratene says.
‘‘That was going very well, all of that, and then the lights went down and dry ice came up, and the lights came up on the battlements, and the soldiers were there – and then came a ghost. I was mesmerised, I was absolutely captivated, and Shakespeare’s words, I could understand everything, I could follow the story completely.
‘‘And what I saw unfolding was this young man with sucky elders, with a troublesome relationship with a girl who was a nutter – it was just totally relatable to me, and I was blown away. And I remember thinking back then, ‘Oh my God. This play’s like 400 years old, it’s written by someone who has been dead all that time and it’s written by somebody on the other side of the planet.’
‘‘It’s been the most powerful thing that I’ve ever experienced in my life.’’
When the lights went down, Paratene turned to his teacher and said: ‘‘I want to do that.’’
‘‘That’s what every young man and young woman needs, is something like that [performance] that can just be so enlightening, so powerful, so gripping, that it sets you on a course not necessarily for the rest of your life but through that incredible, incredibly exciting period of late teens and early 20s,’’ he says.
Paratene was a bright pupil and his teachers had been talking to him about taking law or medicine when he graduated. Instead, he sent a letter to the Mercury’s founding director, Tony Richardson, asking if he could come and work with him. He was given an appointment with Richardson, where he told the director he wanted to leave school and start work straight away.
‘‘He must have thought I was hilarious,’’ Paratene says.
Richardson looked over Paratene’s reports and gave him a plan: finish school, then go to drama school. When he graduated, they’d talk again.
Paratene took his advice, becoming the New Zealand Drama School’s first Maori graduate in the process. At his graduation, Richardson offered him a job.
Paratene’s time at the Mercury saw him apprenticed to the likes of George Henare and Ian Mune. He’s quick to recall Mune’s ‘‘incredible’’ turn as Macbeth, and Henare’s sublime King Lear – to date, one of the best he’s seen.
‘‘I got to learn from the best,’’ he says.
Shakespeare has formed an important part of Paratene’s more recent career as well. In 2014, he joined the London Globe Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Over two years the production played 197 countries – nearly every country in the world.
Many of the audiences spoke little English, but that didn’t stop them enjoying the plays. Paratene remembers a particular performance in Belize, Central America, where a woman in the audience yelled out as
Shakespeare veteran Rawiri Paratene will star in two of the Pop-up Globe’s four plays.