Poropiti

30 September 2017, Blyth Performing Arts Centre, Havelock North
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

In most senses, this piece for theatre is formally bare bones, consisting only of two performers, an armful of props, a large screen, and simple lighting. It played out as a series of tableaux, where ambiguous hybrids of action and activity, ritual and dance rendered a kind of meditation on indigenous history. Anxiety and melancholy are to the fore throughout. The actions taken on the stage are inscrutable while also heavily symbolic, and though it’s difficult to speak of the characters as protagonists, there was a discomfiting sense of doomed struggle and lament, underlined by Mara TK’s mournful and yearning chorus. It was as if the acts of fishing, hunting and collecting, of striving to outline one’s culture had become divorced from meaning or affect, hopelessly abstract.

The initial scenes play out in something close to a pre-colonial arcadia, a rich soundtrack of natural sounds and a stunning moving-image backdrop of rolling water effectively transporting the viewer with minimal means. In Poropiti’s final scene this arcadia is reimagined/replaced by the “Rainbow” Fish Supply. The ironies are cutting. The natural cloak in the first act is replaced by a commercially-patterned cloak self-consciously drawing attention to ‘Māori-ness’, and worn with a baseball cap. The music at this point loses its former folk/Pasifika vibe in favour of RnB, that self-consciously urban ‘street’ signifier.

Formally, there was a lack of flow between the scenes. I wanted to be carried by this elegy, but too often a lack of tight stagecraft let it down. The moving image screen wasn’t used anywhere near its potential for a project like this, which relies on visual symbols and is at its best when delivering its story via compositions of figure, light, movement, colour and form (rather than historical exposition, which it attempts, clunkily, once) – it should be a visual poem, an immersive sensual experience. Too often, Poropiti’s barebones rendering made it seem more like a demo or a first draft of an idea. And suddenly it was over, and I had the feeling that it had only really started to sing its song.

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