Theatre Review: Patua
Blanket and Musket Productions
May 22, 2013
During a week in which a couple were convicted of neglect for raising their four kids in a home with no bedding and booze instead of food in the cupboards, the topic of child abuse is front page news. Actually, it probably wouldn’t matter which week the play opened, child abuse is all too often front page news, which is why a confronting work by a young Maori playwright on the subject is an intriguing prospect. Patua translates as strike or beat. It’s an unflinching title for a play about a Maori baby beaten to death by her own family. Writer/director Renae Maihi sets out in the programme that she had a central question when creating Patua “What happened to make them behave like this?” If newspaper reports can’t give us the answers, maybe art can.
The play opens with a 2-year-old girl critically ill in Starship hospital and the Ariki family in hiding. Baby Moni’s household are a terrifying lot. Grandfather Helsy is the shitkicking head of the family setting the tone for his short-fused son T, who belittles his partner June with harsh doubts over Moni’s paternity. T’s younger, tender sister Sissy cowers.
Meanwhile, across town is a much more enlightened bunch of Ariki relations, as indicated by a much more brilliantly lit set. Widowed mother-of-three Dena has her own problems with a disabled son and an adult daughter with fertility issues but with the support of her hospital chaplain brother and a generous approach to life, grounded in her Maori heritage, she has stronger grip on family and identity.
When Moni dies in hospital, the estranged branches of the family are thrust together.
Patua is a tightly crafted story with characters that get inside your head, thanks to strong performances from the whole cast. Cian Elyse White and Vinnie Bennett are particularly impressive playing two roles each – expertly disappearing into the characters of the young couple in both families. This is a clever device for highlighting the sliding doors nature of the situation – how one family can end up sodden in love and one in monstrous disarray.
Displacement, intergenerational violence, alcohol, poverty, distrust and isolation crop up as culprits in the child abuse blame game. The usual suspects.
There is some heavy moralising in the script – with a subject like this is would be hard not to. Ultimately it’s a story of goodies and baddies with the aggressive outcasts perpetuating a bad habit of destructive choices up against their marae-connected counterpoints who staunchly occupy the moral high ground. This is possibly true but it teetered too close to predictable. Even abusers aren’t horrible all the time.
Patua does strike a moving blow and is to be commended for attacking a topic so dreadfully ubiquitous in our society. It’s debatable whether the play gets us any closer to uncovering why these types of awful deaths occur. What it does do is wrench at the emotions underlying such crimes, and if anything will prompt action against child abuse, it’s that.