Kororāreka: The Ballad of Maggie Flynn

24 August 2018, MTG Century Theatre, Napier
Red Leap Theatre; written by Paolo Rotondo; directed by Julie Nolan
By Bridie Freeman

We are all haunted by our past, whether we realise or not, and this is a ghost story – a bawdy, irreverent nod to our origins. “There’s a tale in my bones fighting to be told”, declares dead Maggie Flynn. She’s a ghost I find myself wanting to be haunted by – when the show ends, I can hardly clap, all I want is for her ballad to start, end-on-end, again.

Through the theatrical creation of a tragi-comic ballad, history is told through the eye of one feisty woman’s story. Set 1820-1845, in Kororāreka (Russell): Aotearoa’s first European settlement, once lawless whaling town and Treaty gateway, Hone Heke’s flagpole sedition. Returning to NZ’s well-glossed historic moments, Kororāreka stirs other stories behind them – land and sea injustices, cultural inter-relationships, pioneer women who didn’t raise children and lived outside societal norms.

We came to hear a story, we are told and instead we’ll get “shivers”. To be honest, I’d be happy to shiver a little more. But as it is I’m entertained from start to finish by Rotondo’s bon mots and funny, improvisational props: plastic drink bottles as cocks; white balloons as buttocks, boobs, shrunken heads, a bottle of grog, a sound effect for cannon fire (popped with a barbeque skewer).

Auckland’s Red Leap Theatre, dedicated to women’s stories and talents, have brought us rollicking, beautiful fun, with enough philosophical hooks to keep the overthinkers amongst us mulling. Their “revamped” tourable performance is both silly and impressive. And incredibly tight, so deftly structured, with dynamo energy from all five performers. Evocative soundscapes and quicksilver dialogue are complemented by circus-dexterous choreography.

Alongside the joy of seeing five wāhine toa command the stage with such verve and agility, it’s a joy to hear the unapologetic weave of te reo Māori – sometimes translated, often not (and nor should it be). In the audience we draw on what we know, we learn meanings through clearly crafted contexts, or are left squinting briefly on the outside of language.

The promise of rhyme can be found in the poetics of the stage and portable props. The lyric symmetry of black boxes, white chalk; white balloons, black marker pen. Figures in white costumes – voluminous layers of white cotton, fix and refix a character with a few clever twists of cloth – against an ‘impromptu’, stage-set: several indispensable black boxes, repositioned, upturned, to create ship, house, pā, town, brothel.

The refrain is ambergris, nursery songs, “Hark, hark the dogs do bark” (sung in sweet, plangent a cappella), and the kehua/ghosts that crowd and shape this ‘tall tale’.

The most poignant moment perhaps, is when Maggie does battle with, or rather confronts and reconciles her own ghost, her former self. There’s the all-too familiar guilt, remorse, shame women experience – almost 200 years on, still recognisable.

I ask myself if Kororāreka fulfils its aims – to show us our wild women not captured by history. And I’m not sure that it does, entirely, dissolving at times into caricature, undone  by its own form – why must Madam Maggie wear that wig, for example?

There are problematic aspects, I can’t resolve. The trauma at the heart of Maggie’s experience, which causes her body to “lose the will to bear children” seems incommensurate with the times and women’s resilience. And the conflation of children and goats remains perplexing – just a jibe (kids/kids)? Are children, by association, to be conflated with the ‘herd’ (those that follow), or is this simply a means to sketch the domestic world?

It’s tempting to dive down a rabbit hole of questioning…. This isn’t biography, it’s a “fictionalised homage” to the strength, resilience, wit, etc., of New Zealand women and their forebears, and as such there are creative choices.

But then, if Kororāreka: The Ballad of Maggie Flynn seems to draw up just short of its own compelling magic – there’s something more I’m left seeking, waiting for, which is why, perhaps, my first impulse is to return to the beginning, and see it all over again – it’s because, as its title signposts, it’s just a ballad, a sea shanty, a playful shove against the genre and History.

Lewd, loud and fast-paced, Kororāreka points us to our past and the stories untold, and the stories untold behind these, it’s not intended as a fulsome contemplation. Yet by bringing these freshly to our consciousness, it opens our ears to the bones in this land.

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