Dunedin-based playwright John Broughton spent 17 years in the New Zealand Territorial Army, and has written a number of works for theatre that deal with the psychological effects of war on returned soldiers. His close familiarity with the material evident throughout this one-man play. There is a roughness in the writing that sounds like intimacy, and a passion and directness in the argument that manifests as a real sense of distress for his central character.
There is also a lingering sort of electricity in the work, which, when it was first performed in 1991, was part of a wave of important Maori plays redefining New Zealand's theatre. It still has an impressive, youthful forcefulness about it. A sense of bravado. Yes, occasionally, stylistically, the text feels a little dated, but in the hands of a vigorous showman like Te Kohe Tuhaka much of that original energy seems revived.
The story is framed as a monodrama, narrated by the explosive and charismatic Michael James Manaia.
Manaia's father fought in World War Two as part of a Maori Battalion, even fighting at the Battle of Monte Cassino. Service in the First and Second World Wars was long seen as a point of pride for the Maori community, and still is. Broughton, however, questions whether this sense of pride, a specifically masculine pride, perhaps led to an obscuring of the long-term psychological effects of war.
Michael's father, for instance, returns from the war a stern, unapproachable man with a violent temper. Though he appears able to adjust socially, working as a teacher, he takes his repressed frustrations out on his sons.
The effect of war on Michael, however, is even more devastating. Following in his father's footsteps, he volunteers for service in Vietnam. The way in which Broughton shows us faint hints of the invisible hand – the darkly angelic hand – that draws Michael inevitably into combat is a real highpoint of the writing.
On returning to Aotearoa, having seen "everything", plagued by terrible dreams, apparently manic, tending toward the delusional, unquestionably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Michael also has to contend with the effects of Agent Orange on his health. The combination leads to a brutal, nightmarish finale.
Tuhaka brings extraordinary intensity as Michael, catapulting himself across the stage, ducking and weaving, harshly wrenching his mood one way then the other. In one breath he might go from softly crooning Bette Midler to weeping for his dead brother to screaming curses at his father, all while retaining a surprising sense of the comic.
A simple set of two roughly planked platforms by Daniel Williams wonderfully brings out the savagery and solitude in Michael's character, and Nathanial Lees direction keeps Tuhaka prowling and pouncing at a fierce pace.
This is potent theatre, which, though occasionally showing its age and raw origins, stills feels immediate and confronting in its arguement and energy.
Presented by New Zealand's national Maori theatre company Taki Rua and fortyfive downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival.