Re­mem­brance of things past

Wellington’s his­tory is brought to life in the first of a pro­jected quar­tet of plays, start­ing in 1840, writes Tom Cardy.

The Dominion Post - - Culture -

WELLINGTON play­wright He­len Pearse-Otene has al­ways been in­trigued by his­tory and the past.

But a piv­otal mo­ment came when she was 16 and had 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 he told me about the Treaty of Wai­tangi. He had learned [about] it in Ire­land. I went away with that ex­pe­ri­ence with a hang­over, but also with a very pro­found long­ing to know why don’t I know my own his­tory.’’

The fact the Ir­ish­man knew more than Pearse-Otene, who is of Nga­puhi, Ngati Ruanui and Ngati Kahun­gunuRon­go­mai­wahine 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 in 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 the 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.

Bat­tal­ion, staged at the New Zealand Fes­ti­val in 2006, cen­tred on the Maori Bat­tal­ion in World War II. Ka Mate Kar 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 Maori 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 Maori, in­clud­ing chief Te Waipouri and his peo­ple.

The Ragged was first staged in 2010 at St Pa­trick’s Col­lege The­atre, di­rected by PearseOten­e’s part­ner, act­ing stal­wart Jim Mo­ri­arty.

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

The play is be­ing re-staged and per­formed at Te Papa’s Sound­ings The­atre as part of Ngati Toa’s res­i­dency at the water­front mu­seum.

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

Pearse-Otene and Mo­ri­arty, who is of Ngati Toa de­scent, say Dog and Bone is likely to be staged at Te Papa later this year. But it won’t stop there. Over the next three years Pearse-Otene and Te Rakau 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

Play­wright He­len Pearse-Otene Maori from their lands.

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

The fourth play, The Lan­deaters, will be set in the near fu­ture. Pearse-Otene has yet to write The Lan­deaters, 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 Maori 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 from 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 Maori and most Maori 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 Maori and Pakeha re­la­tions. ‘‘It’s the be­gin­ning of try­ing to un­der­stand each other, but for all in­tents and pur­poses, stuff hap­pens.’’

‘The thing that re­ally came out for me was how staunch th­ese set­tlers were. They were re­ally dicked around by the New Zealand Company.’

The Ragged, Sound­ing The­atre, Te Papa, tonight, 7pm un­til Jan­uary 28.

Mak­ing his­tory: He­len Pearse-Otene, left, and Jim Mo­ri­arty – the cre­ative part­ner­ship be­hind The Ragged. ‘‘For me, I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in New Zealand his­tory,’’ says Pearse-Otene.

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