Play revives memories of war

Last updated 09:04 24/01/2013
Te Kohe Tuhaka
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New face, old play: Te Kohe Tuhaka, carrying on the baton of portraying Michael James Manaia.

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The world has changed since Michael James Manaia - the powerful play about a Vietnam war veteran - premiered 21 years ago. It still has much to say to modern audiences though, playwright John Broughton tells MIKE HOULAHAN.

In 1991, Wellington's Downstage Theatre premiered a new New Zealand play, Michael James Manaia, by Dunedin writer John Broughton.

Two decades ago theatres weren't as prepared to stage works by New Zealand writers as they are now, our own stories being regarded as risky box office propositions by administrators.

Happily, the play was a triumph. Not only did it succeed in Wellington, but Colin McColl's whole-hearted direction and Jim Moriarty's committed performance saw Michael James Manaia make it all the way to the Edinburgh Festival and around the world. The play's success helped open doors for other local playwrights, and in particular for Maori playwrights.

Now it is 2013, and Michael James Manaia is back. Revived and restaged for the 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival, a new cast and new director have breathed new life into the play. It has toured New Zealand and Australia, and is now about to be performed in Broughton's home town.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing it here, and especially at the Fortune Theatre," said Broughton, a lecturer at the University of Otago Medical School.

In some ways, the answer to why Michael James Manaia still resonates so strongly with audiences is simple: it is supremely good writing, paired with two actors who have given their all to a physically and emotionally draining role. In other ways it is complex; this is a story of a 1950s upbringing and a war fought in the 1960s - Vietnam - which is now history rather than recent memory for many in the audience.

While the Vietnam era may not be the raw memory it still was in 1991, broader themes the play explores - family, fatherhood, self-identity - are timeless. There has also been a re-awakening of interest in New Zealand's military history - the massed turnout of young people at Anzac Day Dawn Services is testament to that - and the skill of Maori soldiery, in the form of VC winner Willie Apiata, is nationally recognised.

"The themes are timeless," said Broughton, who spent 17 years in the Territorials and is on the RSA Welfare Trust and Montecillo board. "There are a whole myriad of things that come together in the play, which gives it great appeal. If you look at what has happened over the decades with the recognition of April 25, it's amazing. Here in Dunedin the students' association last year held its inaugural Anzac Day commemoration on campus, which had a huge attendance."

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Michael James Manaia deals with the isolation and stigmatisation that came with having fought in such a widely unpopular and misunderstood war as Vietnam. Since its premiere the Government has apologised to Vietnam veterans and held a formal parade to recognise their service.

"The play did have the historical context of its time. Since then, there has been acceptance and recognition of things, and things that should have been done did eventually get done."

Taki Rua - New Zealand's national Maori theatre company - felt there were still things Michael James Manaia had to say. Broughton has made minor tweaks to the original script, but it has totally different production and staging which Broughton felt took the play "to another dimension".

Key to that has been the casting of Te Kohe Tuhaka as Michael James Manaia. It was a big ask for the young actor, taking on a role performed to such acclaim by Jim Moriarty.

"He was him, but life goes on, people move on, and there were always going to be other people who would come to the fore. I think they had a lot of applicants who wanted to audition for the role," Broughton said.

"TK certainly holds your attention for the whole time, but the play has got a very good crew . . . (new director Nathaniel Lees) has done an amazing job with the production."

■ Michael James Manaia, by John Broughton. Fortune Theatre, February 2 to 16.

- The Southland Times

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