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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 22. September 17, 1968

Drama — Bruce Mason: he went thataway

page 13


Bruce Mason: he went thataway

There must be very few people left in New Zealand who have not heard of the play Awatea, or for that matter of its author Bruce Mason. The publicity has been long, loud and successful, the production even earning for itself a somewhat muddle headed, if well-intentioned, editorial in The Dominion. The relationships among those involved in its staging have been, if we are to believe the press hand-outs, nothing less that euphoric. The introduction in the programme tells us that Mr Mason "offers to Downstage his humblest and most devoted thanks for the honour they do him in presenting it." (Since the article is written in the third person, are we to assume that Downstage speaking as some sort of abstraction, has chosen the superlatives that describe Mr Mason's thanks?) If further evidence is needed of the "stunning success" (Owen Jensen) of this play "of more than theatrical significance" (Dominion editorial), the response of the audiences in terms of size and acclamation has been so great that someone suggested that Downstage could well enter in negotiation with Sidney Poitier for their next production on this scale (Hongi On Ice)?.

I admire greatly, despite certain reservations, Bruce Mason's diverse talents, and love him dearly, without any reservations, as a friend. Therefore I cannot help feeling churlish, snide, and somewhat traitorous when I suggest that he has written very well a very bad play. There are several reasons why I am prepared to risk losing his friendship and, in passing, that of some theatrical colleagues. First, Mr Mason's work Muse flourishes best in adversity, and if it is to flourish at all in the future, he must leave the stand he has recently taken up as the champion of "God's own country" and as the apologist for the "she's right" attitude he used to inveigh against so brilliantly, whatever happened to the author of:

"If a Kiwi dares to put on airs, the other chaps despise him,
And the only course is to call on force and properly chastise him,
A Kiwi needs no interests outside horses, sex and booze,
So why won't my neighbour, (be like me!)"

One can only answer of what one knows, and it was a painful experience to read Mr Mason's reply to Austin Mitchell's open letter to a friend, for there was the Establishment talking, and using the same smug cliches that flourished here in the 30s and 40s, and which I thought had been decently buried. The tone, if not the explicit statement, was one of "If you don't like it here, why don't you go back where you came from?" This from the author of the brilliant collection of satirical pieces We Don't Want Your Sort Here. Despite the fact that the book is now something of a collector's item, and that I was one of the dedicatees, I am willing to send Mr Mason my copy if only to remind him of his gallant attempts with his savagely urbane wit to make us see ourselves as we really are. Does he really think things have changed so much in the last six years that he can, in such a short space of time, transmute the tragic ending of The Pohutukawa Tree into the patently false one of Awatea? (I have yet to know, by the way, of a magistrate (sic!) in New Zealand willing to commit a Maori man of thirty to prison for six months—two of them in an open one—when the guilty party has stolen a car, bashed up a man, and stolen six hundred dollars. Further, I would like to know the name of the Education Board willing to risk taking such a man into one of its Teacher's Colleges on his release from prison.) All this in the name of a happy ending, where we can shed a few tears for the dear, blind old man, at the same time, expiate any feelings of guilt. "Look at the dear old thing, he's actually laughing about it all and only five minutes ago he was going to jump off a cliff only to be foiled by Miss Gilhooly, the little Miss Fixit of the East Coast. There's no denying it, Maoris would rather sing and dance than face facts!"

What is so appalling is the undeniable magic that Mr Mason manages to weave over us. And once I realised I was seeing a kind of To Sir, With Love mated with The Sound of Music, I settled back and cried along with everybody else. It was on this level that I enjoyed and admired the show. One cannot deny the panache with which the whole thing was done. Nor can I find many reasons why it should not be done, for as a pastiche of some of our nobler thoughts about "the noble savage" (for this is what the character of Werihe Paku emerges as) the play is very successful. In fact, the only aspect of the production that really disturbs me (and it disturbs me immeasurably) is that audiences have taken it seriously. I have a shrewd notion, supported only by intuition, that the performers felt something less than dedication to its point of view. Mr Mason makes much of the truly valid point that each race gives the other what it thinks the other wants, and perhaps the ultimate "put on" has been done by the performers on the audience, basically a vvhite one.

Mr Mason had the services of a particularly gifted young producer in Dick Johnstone and it suddenly occurred to me during the performance that our gain is Broadway's loss, for while I have not yet seen anything to suggest that Mr Johnstone could make it into the "bigtime" in "legitimate theatre", I think he could find a brilliant career in musicals or opera. This is not meant to be snide, I mean the big big time. It is this very brilliance that works as a disadvantage for him—and I admit my knowledge of his work is severely limited— when he is working in the less technicolored world of the "straight" play. As a producer he is original, he has his own style, and, most of all, he has audacity. And these attributes were absolutely necessary to the production of Awatea.

Miss Gilhooly is a "corny" character and her admixture of Irishisms and New Zealandese has a certain dated quality in theatre of today, and Miss Davina Whitehouse must have had more than one sleepless night wondering what to do in the vast and cavernous world of the Town Hall with such a woman. She chose rightly and the audience loved her. It may not be acting to ride a bicycle into the Town Hall singing at the top of one's voice (shades of Sister George) but it worked. All the actors of any experience soon learned, apparently, that there was only one pitch of voice one could use, and that was bloody high. The enormous stage had to be used as if its dimensions were negotiable, and the tremendous steps up the cliff would have daunted a lesser spirit than Miss Whitehouse's. Miss Whitehouse then, made of Miss Gilhooly a bold and credible character, taken from material that at best can only be described as belonging to a bold and incredible caricature. I suppose of all the attributes that make up Miss Whitehouse's impressive armoury of acting skills, that which I admire most is her sense of style. And who can define style? For one thing, every line and every gesture is part of a greater whole, yet style cannot be this alone. It can rivet an audience's attention, and yet the actor concerned can be completely generous when working with other actors.

Inia Te Wiata made a tremendous impression in his role of Werihe Paku but anyone who understands anything of the quirky nature of theatre must acknowledge that he was only as good as Miss Whitehouse allowed him to be. Given a star part by Mr Mason, and the star treatment by his producer Mr Johnstone, Mr Te Wiata's gratitude should be directed chiefly toward the shrewd "feeding in" he received from Miss Whitehouse, from the way in which she built his scenes into something beyond their deserving, and best of all, from the way she appeared to submerge her personality into his in the last, most affecting letter writing scene. Our logic may have been surprised to find out she could write letters in the Maori language since there had been little or no evidence of this earlier in the play—but then we do not expect a great deal of logic in a musical play.

Mr Te Wiata has a glorious speaking voice and, in his longer speeches, I was content to sit back and listen to the wonderful sounds he was creating. Since the actual speeches were something of a long-winded bore, we were lucky he said them so beautifully. There is nothing wrong with this. It may surprise some of our self-conscious liberals to know that some of the speeches heard, say, On the marae are just that—long-winded bores—saved from oblivion by the undoubted skills of the orators making them. I must also hasten to add (and my doing so is a good example of the absurd lengths we have to go to today to avoid hurting delicate sensitivities) that many Speeches are not like this, but I must admit my admiration of Mr Mason's integrity in showing us this weakness of Werihe Paku—although it is the only weakness that Mr. Mason allows the man. In fact on more than one occasion, I wondered rather mischievously whether the son left home more to avoid his father's heavy-handed pontificating than for any Other reason. Mr Te Wiata is assuredly a performer of some calibre, hut of his ability as an actor I am prepared to suspend my judgment. If he could demonstrate a greater variety and colour in his work, I hazard a guess that he could give us as powerful a portrayal of Shakespeare's King Lear as we are ever likely to see in New Zealand.

Harry Lavington and Russell Duncan, both seasoned campaigners, shrieked at each other manfully and surprisingly, managed to give at the same time a notion of the characters they were playing. (You know the characters, the East Coast is riddled with them—taciturn Scottish-Irish sergeant grudgingly but rather touchingly turning a blind eye to the law's injunctions and the even more grudgingly Inspector turning his blind eye etc.) Mr Duncan's little weakness of using small hand-movements and ignoring the uses of the whole arm detracted slightly in the largeness of the Town Hall from the undoubted "weight" of his performance.

It was this lack of "weight" (a not too easily defined term which an actor, if not a member of the audience, would understand) that Mr George Henare needs to work on if he wishes to pursue the acting profession. His is a good, powerful voice, he has strong features and (theatrically speaking) a useful "line" to his body, yet a lot of these advantages are dissipated by his unsureness in terms of movement, distribution of body-emphasis, and that which Miss Whitehouse is naturally endowed with, style.

In a further groping in print towards a satisfactory meaning for the word, I suppose it would be fair to say that Mr Mason, whatever he writes, writes with style even though, as in this case, I would suggest that it can exist even when the content is either without validity or lacking in wisdom. We saw, for instance, the two pakehas, the Sergeant and Miss Gilhooly, organising the opening and the eating of the hangi Willi some style, yet a more ludicrous faux pas in terms of maoritanga is difficult to imagine. The men decide when to open the hangi—let there be no mistake about that—and they do it with style. The women, in their infinite courtesy, would haw seen to it that the pakehas were treated no less than as honoured guests—and of course as no more than that either. Mr Mason can drag out all the cliche adjectives about the Maori that he likes ("proud", "fierce", "noble-looking"') but unless he allows his Maoris to act as he describes them, then he is paying them that final humiliating indignity, treating them as rather endearing but somewhat irresponsible children.

It is in staging such a melange of wish-fulfilment, guilt-erasing nonsense such as this (expertly done though it may have been) that both Mr Mason and Downstage assisted, my God, by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, have helped set back some years what little knowledge the Maori and the pakeha may have been groping towards having of each other over the last few decades. Such colossal naivete, both sociological and psychological, earns its own punishment, I suppose. Even so I must admit that the Dominion editorial praising the venture was a punishment I wouldn't wish on anyone, let alone those I have a fierce regard for. To me, Mr Mason is at a crossroads in his writing career (I don't want to think what sort of crossroads Downstage appears to have arrived at) and what is a friend for but to give advice when it hasn't been requested? If Mr Mason were no more than a friend, then the need for this article could be questioned. But I am inclined to believe (remembering his marvellously angry letters, some private, written in the past and when the chips were down; his wicked sketches that managed to skewer New Zealand society neatly and with aplomb; and best of all The End of the Golden Weather; that Mr Mason, has finally become too successful in too many fields and that he now needs to leave the ephemeral world of Letters to the Editor and Columns on the Wing for the less extrovert one of the attic, where the only responsibility is to himself as an artist. To hell, for a while, with leading God's Own Country along the Right Paths, and time to enter the terrifying world of reappraisal.

Portrait photo of Inia Te Wiata

Inia Te Wiata: Star of Bruce Mason's Awatea will also give recitals and appear in the Opera Company's production of Il Seralgio during his visit. He will also be recording a new radio play, Hongi, by Bruce Mason for the NZBC.