Theatre Review: The Haka Party Incident at ASB Waterfront Theatre, 31 March 2021

The Haka Party Incident: On May 1 1979, the Auckland University Engineering students’ Haka Party was confronted and attacked by a group of Maori activists, objecting to this long-standing racist parody tradition. It hit the headlines and received global attention – a surgical strike at the heart of institutionalised racism in New Zealand.

And it worked! The campus was in foment. Anger and emotions were raw. It felt revolutionary to be a first-year student on campus in that year, as I was.

The Haka Party IncidentThe cycle had begun with the occupation of Bastion Point by Maori activists and their supporters and culminated in the 1981 Springbok Tour turmoil. The Haka Party Incident sits right at the centre like a vortex which shifted the course of history in this country.

Katie Wolfe started work on this project four years ago. She had long been intrigued by the story and what meaning it still had for those involved.

This season of The Haka Party is dedicated to Miriama Rauhihi-Ness, who brought together the surviving members of He Taua, the name given to the loose collective of Maori activists. The name came into being with the incident.

The Haka Party IncidentThe play is structured as Verbatim Theatre. Wolfe interviewed as many of the original Engineering students as would agree, along with He Taua. This also included President of the Student’s Union Janet Roth, and editor of student newspaper Craccum David Merritt. Both pivotal people at the time.

The transcript of those interviews is the dialogue but the play goes further. The actors all have bluetooth earpieces and play the characters exactly as they speak, with all mannerisms intact. A Received Verbatim technique.

This is live theatre as dynamic documentary. Astonishingly the time is recreated in its immediacy again and has captivating power.

Passionate multi-layered performances. Powerful hakas.

The set is minimal and the stage is huge. The seven-member ensemble cast are generally magnificent. Each play several different characters. Sometimes they transition between them mid-speech. Their technique is good enough that the narrative never loses momentum, even though the show is packed with dialogue.

Much of that dialogue is in te reo Maori. And then given the English translation. Many of the cast were learning to speak the language.

An absolute highlight of the show were the nine haka performed. From the original Engineers’ haka written in 1924 by Te Rangi Hiroa, to traditional ones and the parodies being done at the time in the Seventies. The concluding haka is a brand-new one called He Taua written by Nikau Balme, Wolfe’s son.

The Haka Party IncidentThe players are Roimata Fox, Aidan O’Malley, Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, Richard Te Are, Patrick Tafa, Lauren Gibson and Jared Blakiston.

Whilst it’s unfair to single out any individual performer, Te Are and Fox bring anger but also despair to their Activist characters. Blakiston captures perfectly that entitled, insensitive and arrogant provincial white male youth with the male brotherhood mentality of don’t give a shit who I offend. O’Malley reveals the quieter male student who has an epiphany. Gibson brings Janet Roth to life as I remember her.

The Haka Party IncidentAs a documentary it puts together a corrected narrative of what went down with the Police and Justice system. The story at the time got lost or altered in the heat of the moment. Or the fog of war.

It may go on a bit too long over the latter stages of the play but this is really a minor quibble in the end. The way the saga unfolded with multiple characters and involving shifts in time period.

Performers channel the original protagonists into powerful voices combined with moments of heartbreak. Cleansed by exhilarating hakas.

A bit like James Joyce’s Ullysses.

This is more Iliad than Odyssey. This is the story of one pivotal battle. Of course, that story stretches back much further than Bastion Point. It is addressing colonisation and dispossession.  And the loss of everything. The play was held back due to Covid-19 last year. We can probably count ourselves lucky to have this season finally, after being postponed at the last moment.

This last 12 months has re-ignited America and the world with Black Lives Matter. The light is shone again on this country with this production. The last 12 months has also seen published an analytical study on a New Zealand town that was as every bit racist as any Deep Southern town in America up to the Sixties. No Maori Allowed: New Zealand’s Forgotten History of Racial Segregation by Robert Bartholomew.

A pivotal moment in confronting racism in New Zealand. How much has changed and also how much is two steps forward, one step back? On balance a superb production which you should take the opportunity to see in its short season.

The Haka Party IncidentThe Haka Party Incident

Writer and Director: Katie Wolfe
ASB Waterfront Theatre, Wynyard Quarter
Playing from 30 March – 10 April
Tickets and more information HERE.

Rev Orange Peel