A chance look at a 19th century print sparked the idea of Stuart Hoar's "reimagining" of when French and Maori mixed at Akaroa, writes Tessa Johnstone.
It was happening upon a surreal 1865 sketch of a Parisian government building that got playwright Stuart Hoar started on Pasefika.
"It was a print of a building in Paris in the 1860s, the naval ministry, a very lovely building, but that part was very conventional. But then in the sky, there were these whales and what looked like Maori people in waka flooding in. It was very surreal and very naturalistic, so that intrigued me."
A Katherine Mansfield fellow living in Menton, France, he came across the Charles Meryon sketch and thought it was as good a way as any to start a play.
The Adam NZ Play Award- winning result is Pasefika - being staged for the first time at Circa Theatre during the NZ Festival. Hoar learned that Meryon (played by Jason Whyte in Pasefika) had been stationed with the navy in the French colony of Akaroa in the 1840s, and the play is a take on the artist's life both in Akaroa and back in Paris in the 1860s.
"On a level the play is about how immediately when they touch each other, cultures start to change. Pacific culture, Maori culture starts to change in the French colony of Akaroa, but my point is then also that European culture starts to change once Meryon comes back to Paris and has these visions and experiences of life of the Pacific."
Hoar says it is a light and witty take on Meryon's life and his relationships with poet Charles Baudelaire and two women - a "reimagining".
"Historical drama or stories are totally in vogue right now, right from Hilary Mantel to Eleanor Catton. All those writers are reimagining the time periods, they're not looking up Google Street View in 1816. You're researching and reimagining. And I've always thought play suggests playfulness."
Hoar says Baudelaire's role was very much written specifically for George Henare - an actor he has admired since first seeing him in a production of A Man For All Seasons in Auckland as a schoolboy: "I feel very lucky to have him, for me it's amazing."
Hoar said it is is with a mix of enjoyment and trepidation that he will sit through opening night in Wellington - although he wrote the play, he has left it up to a talented cast and crew to see the production out.
"It's their play as much as it's my play - if you don't understand you're part of the collective it's time to go and write a novel."
Pasefika, written by Stuart Hoar, directed by Susan Wilson, Circa Theatre, until March 15. Stuart Hoar will also be part of a Writers Week panel Based on a True Story, with Michelanne Forster, Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith, Hannah Playhouse (formerly Downstage Theatre), March 12, 10.45am
- The Dominion Post