Theatre Review: Niu Sila
Q Theatre Loft
October 2, 2013
It has been eight years since Niu Sila first hit the stage – with a sellout season and best new play award for Oscar Kightley and Dave Armstrong’s insightful, witty writing. Auckland Theatre Company has brought it back for a national tour, and rightly so because it has earned itself an enduring spot in our theatre heritage. If you’ve missed it before– as I did – catch it at Q Theatre or later in the month as part of the Southside Festival at Mangere Arts Centre. Not just because of its place in our annals of social history theatre, Niu Sila is a laugh-aloud hoot – and may jerk a tear or two too.
The play opens with a chance encounter between former besties Ioane Tafioka (Fasitua Amosa) and Peter Burton (David Van Horn) in a TAB. Tafioka is surly, Burton is offended. Rewind to 1960s Ponsonby and we meet the same characters as adorable, fizzy six-year-olds. It’s a different time and a different place, when Ponsonby was the domain of the working class not an enclave of million-plus dollar homes. The palagi Burton family – bleeding heart liberal types – welcome the large fresh-of-the-boat Tafioka family moving in next door. The two families set about introducing their cultures to each other. The Tafiokas take Peter to church and feed him from the umu. Ioane gets a trip to the orchestra and invited out on picnics. As the boys age it becomes apparent that although they share addresses they don’t share destinies. Pesky policeman and prejudiced schoolteachers harass only one of them. The circumstances that lead to that frosty meeting in the TAB gradually unfurl. Niu Sila deals with some deep set cultural issues, but all this darker social commentary rests subtly beneath a snappy, jolly 90 minutes of entertainment as we laugh along with Ioane and Peter’s escapades.
Amosa and Van Horn have an easy rapport on stage and impressively fluid command of the diverse characters they inhabit. Amosa’s young, excitable Ioane is infectious but he is just as at ease playing the sleazy Islander minister (aka Criminal) and Peter’s white academic father. Van Horn shows similar dexterity as he flicks from narrator duties to sweet kid, concerned mum and wizened teacher.
The quick character changes are paired with high-energy action carried out up and over the simple set of sloping tables shaped as the three main islands of New Zealand. It’s a clever piece of design that contributes height and motion to the performance while being a handy depository for hidden props, but lays on the symbolism a bit thick. We already know this is a deeply New Zealand story.
We’d like to think we’ve long moved on from the attitudes of the 1960s. The play makes clear that Ioane gets the raw deal in life, through a combination of external factors and his own poor choices. Niu Sila holds a mirror up to our past that is at times cringey, yet consider our current education statistics and it’s hard to deny there is a glint of the present day too. Like it or not, Niu Sila comes from a place of truth – and that’s where the best comedy dwells.
Q Theatre Loft until Oct 5.
Mangere Arts Centre, Oct 15-25.
Photographed by Steven Boniface.