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

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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

Rawiri Paratene

Shake­speare vet­eran Rawiri Paratene will star in two of the Pop-up Globe’s four plays.

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