Auckland Arts Festival: Hui - review
Silo Theatre Company
Q Theatre to March 23, 2013
At last, a festival play that’s not a musical! Not to take away from the splendid musical theatre we have seen, of course, but the festival has been crying out for a good old-fashioned piece of searing, cathartic, turn-you-inside-out-and-place-you-back-in-the-world play, and now it has one. And it’s a New Zealand play to boot.
In Mitch Tawhi Thomas’ play Hui, the old man Bob Wahie has died, and his sons return home – to face their demons, who turn out to be each other. There’s Pita, ex-Mongrel Mob and now an elder in the Destiny Church; Tina, who used to be Tane, back for the first time in 20 years from London; Tamati, the baby of the family and now a league star in Australia; and George, who never left home because he’s intellectually disabled.
Yes, they are all types, and their stories and interaction are played out in intensely naturalistic style. This is not a play that pushes into new territory in either characterisation or staging. But that doesn’t matter much. What it does do is burrow into the anguished depths of family life. None of the characters is half as functional as they like to think, and though they all cling in different ways to an idea of the value of “family”, the reality is that they have all been damaged, mostly profoundly, by their experience of it.
Just like the rest of us. Thomas is not sentimental about any of this. The family isn’t good or bad, says Tina, it’s just what we are. And for Thomas, Maori culture and society is what it is too, and needs to be respected and understood, but he does not put it on a pedestal.
All of that makes Hui a bracing, challenging, powerful work. But there is much more to praise as well. In the opening scene, George stands with his father and puts on his tie, and we realise the old man is dead. Later, the father (played by dancer Maaka Pepene), lit warmly and with remarkable skill by Jennifer Lal, walks among his children, loving them, while they remain oblivious. The two scenes form a beautiful sequence, an arresting way to present that Maori concept of the dead being with us still.
In a remarkably strong cast Tola Newbery gives a riveting performance as George, providing the surprising centre to the play while all the others spin off from him, and Stephen Butterworth imbues Tina with compelling tragic intensity.
Then there’s Vinnie Bennett as league player Tamati. It’s his first professional role, and he has the sonorous voice, the still, charged presence, the grace in movement, the twinkly smile and, oh yes, the completely ripped body, of what is known in sporting circles as bloody awesome. There’s a big future waiting for that lad.
Rachel House’s direction is energetic and assured: her actors work subtly together and she gives you the play – we’re really short of good directors and it’s almost a scandal she is not doing it more regularly.
Such good work. At the very end it needs a whoosh! – a great aural experience to complement the action – but the lack of that barely diminishes this extremely moving, provocative night in the theatre. See it while you can.