Twenty years ago Victor Rodger wrote SONS. I wasn’t there to seen it but neither were the vast majority of the punters who packed Mangere Arts Centre last night. There were a few heroes who could stand up and say proudly that they had been there (respect) but for most of us this was our first introduction to the emotional maelstrom that is SONS.
Noah (Beulah Koale) is a successful 24 year old television presenter brought up by his mum Grace (Alison Bruce) and his overprotective Nan (Rima Te Wiata). He’s half-caste. Afakasi. But he doesn’t know much about his Samoan side until one of his aunties tell him that his father (yep, the one who walked out on his mum and left her to bring him up on her own) is very sick.
When Noah decides to visit this phantom of his past he’s confronted with an array of truths: that Manu’a (Max Palamo) not only abandoned his mother but chose to marry another palangi, Sandra (Bronwyn Bradley) and have two kids with her as well. A happy law abiding church going Samoan family. Except there’s no place for Noah in the family portrait.
SONS might have shaken the theatrical landscape when it first premiered: a distinctively Pasifika story that refused to corroborate the use of Polynesian voices and bodies as the traditional ‘blackground’ against which much of the work at the time was made. But unlike many other works, SONS is not a product of its time. The story is as powerful and magnetic as it would have been twenty years ago – and possibly even more so.
Rodger’s writing is brilliant. His characters, particularly his protagonist Noah, are utterly mesmerising. The happy-go-lucky innocent boy who just wants to find his dad ends up putting the world into perspective as he discovers he just wants to have the conversation – about what it means not just to be Samoan, not just to be Afakasi, but it really what it means to be ‘Noah’ growing up in this crazy world where truths are hidden and time is a luxury that is afforded to only a few.
The strength of SONS rests almost solely on the ability of Rodger to transport his audiences to a world where these stories aren’t simply told but are alive and it is to Koale’s credit that he brings to life young Noah with all his insecurities, cheeky facades, and ultimately a deeply entrenched anger that explodes any notion that in situations like this the kid will be ‘alright’.
While Koale is the star of the night, both Max Palamo and Rima Te Wiata are equally enigmatic. Initially appearing as the immovable God-fearing leader of the church, there is much more to Manu’a than even young Noah realises. It is thanks both to Rodger’s ability to craft such a human character and Palamo’s to bring him to life that we are able to see the rich multi-faceted persona that is Noah’s father: the one who can groove to James Brown’s sex machine and simply lay a hand on a woman to make them swoon.
Te Wiata, playing the Scottish gran with a temper to match, is a true matriarch and while most of the other female characters are recognisable and mildly likeable, she is exceptional in bringing into Noah’s rather reductive world of black and white a range of insights that force him to gouge much deeper that he initially intended.
The writing and the actors raise the standard of storytelling to a completely new level and director David Fane’s bringing those relationships to the fore with all their nuances and subtleties is laudatory.
However the use of space and the set completely lets this stellar production down. A screen to project close-ups, passing of time and location completely dominates the set with its clunky levels exacerbated by the poor acoustics. With constantly roving stage crew it almost seems like the entire play is a set within a set – except Noah is a presenter on a music channel not a telenovela drama. Furthermore, the lighting seems exaggerated, coming into its own for a few moments at the gallery opening and fundraiser but for much of the duration of this one-act is intrusive and unnecessary.
The risk of attempting to be sophisticated is that technology becomes a gimmicky add-on that in fact detracts from the value of the story. Unfortunately while the fabulous line-up of performers do justice to Rodger’s writing, the space could have been far more creatively imagined – in a way that all members of the audience are able to see and hear the action on stage but without having to operate their necks on a puppet string to see if they are missing any action up on the big screen.
SONS is an unmissable production. It bares family truths with humour and wit and most importantly a lightness of touch that is both poignant and heartfelt. It is a story that has changed the way Pasifika stories are told: a revolution in theatre history as transformative today as it was 20 years ago.
#theatre #victorrodger #atc #mangere #drama