Kotahi ano te kohao o te ngira, E kuhuna ai te miro ma te miro whero me te miro pango.
As kuia Grandma Mataira (Grace Ahipene-Hoete) watches her son Waru Mataira (Rob Mokaraka) and grandsons Tai and Rangi Mataira (Joe Dekkers-Reihana and Puriri Kōria) prepare to leave for a war that is not their own, her son reminds her: “‘There is but one eye of the needle, through which the white, red and black threads must pass.’ Isn’t that what he said, Ma?”
These are the words of the King Potatau Te Wherowhero spoken at his koroneihana in 1858, a whakatauki today that echoes continuously in the rich and sweeping narrative that is Witi Ihimaera’s All Our Sons.
Over seventy minutes a series of vignettes trace the journey of the Mataira men: proud tāne who serve as Māori iwi of Mataira Mountain in the New Zealand Native Contingent for ‘king and country’. Always present, their wahine toa (Kali Kopae, Moana Ete, and Amanda Noblett) are courageous women whose sacrifice can never be said to be unequal to those of their men.
They constantly question, reflect and challenge their tāne as they are forced to recognise that “once we were thrown into prison for fighting against the Pākehā, now we will be imprisoned if we do not fight with him.” Far away from Aotearoa figures rise on the Gallipoli Peninsular: the battle of Sari Blair; limbs fly as grenades explode and the voices of men call out in te reo as they try to find their brothers in the night.
Yes, this is the story of the men who went to war but more importantly, Witi Ihimaera brings to us the tale of how we are forced to participate in war against each other – and our own humanity.
In this production, Ihimaera’s skills as a novelist to create layered textualities are given breadth and dimension under Nathaniel Lee’s unswerving direction. The script itself is in transition, flexing and swelling and will continue to develop. There is some chronological clarity (which is much needed) but part of the beauty of the script is that it is in fact non-linear, e tīwhana nei i te atamira, it curves across the stage.
There are still dramaturgical structural changes that need to be made, especially to distill key moments and to cradle that precious balance of the historical drama and the wairuatanga (spirituality). However, the process itself is unequivocally powerful, it invites audiences within a safe and sacred space that through moments, reflections and experiences, do justice to the kōrero tuku iho (history) of the tīpuna (ancestors) who fought for this country.
The production value of this work is very high. Cast are extraordinarily versatile as a collective and offer deeply compelling performances. Grace Ahipene-Hoete as Grandma Mataira and Rob Mokaraka as her son in particular are powerful leads combining a rare mix of strength, humility and passion in their characters. Together the ten strong cast work fluidly and ably as a collective with a heartening display of strong male and female characters.
In addition, the various concentric layers that set designer Wai Mihinui develops by having the stage in the round allows multiple stories to be held both by the main characters but also by Wairua (Kereama Te Ua). As a performer Te Ua brings great strength, visibility and empowerment to the narrative and he is also responsible for the excellent kapa haka choreography in the production.
All credit to Lees, as director, for honouring the vision of this work’s rangatira (Ihimaera) and bringing to life a creative and cohesive production. The work speaks and sings not only through the text but through its nuanced soundscape (Maaka McGregor) including multi-faceted use of the poi, historically resonant costumes (Moana Davey) and a brilliant combination of lighting and AV effects (Jen Lal and Jordan Beresford) that encompass both the epic and the minutiae of the war.
Waiata, kapa haka and storytelling are the aesthetics of the production and the raranga (weaving) of these elements creates a visceral and evocative landscape that is potent experience for all gathered. Te reo Māori is a beautiful taonga for us as New Zealanders and as audiences it is a privilege to witness the poetic renderings of language thanks to the efforts of Ngāmoni Huata and Hōhepa Waitoa. Their knowledge and expertise offer an aurality that, even if not possible to fully comprehend, undeniably creates a deeply emotive connection.
Although not always included as part of the whakatauki mentioned earlier, King Potatau Te Wherowhero concluded his words on that fateful day with: “A muri i a au kia mau ki te ture ki te whakapono ki te aroha. Hei aha te aha! hei aha te aha!” Hold fast to the law (lore), hold fast to faith, hold fast to love. Forsake all else!
Those are the tenets upon which Witi Ihimaera’s work rests.
The lore of the people, the faith in each other, the love that we have for those who have gone before us – those are the pillars upon which All Our Sons is built. And for that recognition of our fundamental humanity it is work that does indeed deserve a space in the canon of contemporary New Zealand theatre.