Ngākau Toa’s A Toroihi rāua ko Kāhira (Troilus and Cressida)

23 & 24 April 2012

A Toroihi rāua ko Kāhira (Troilus and Cressida), performed by Ngākau Toa from Aotearoa New Zealand, opened the Globe to Globe festival’s cycle of Shakespeare’s plays on 23 April. Directed by Rachel House and co-directed by Jamus Webster, Ngākau Toa’s production transported the action of Shakespeare’s play from Ancient Greece to te Ao Māori, the classical world of the Māori, prior to the arrival of European explorers, traders and settlers in the wake of James Cook’s 1769 voyage to New Zealand.  In Te Haumihiata  Mason’s translation, war between the Greeks and the Trojans was refigured as a war between Māori tribes, the Kariki and Toroi; the names of Shakespeare’s characters were given Māori equivalents (e.g. Toroihi for Troilus, Kāhira for Cressida); and the spiritual and social world of the play was recast in terms of Māori culture and traditions (e.g. Kātiti/Calchas is performed as a tohunga or priest who is able to mediate between the atua (ancestors) and the tribe, and the play was saturated with references to Māori gods). The production also employed Māori taonga (cultural treasures) in the form of waiata (songs), haka (dance), mau rākau (Māori weaponry), nga taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) and te reo Māori (Māori language). For Rawiri Paratene, Ngākau Toa’s founder and the production’s Executive Producer, who also performed the role of Panātara/Pandarus, the production provided the opportunity ‘to showcase some of our great Maori actors, to show off our beautiful reo rangatera, but also to showcase a selection of Maori performing arts’ (Waatea 603 am, 3 October 2011). The production made me consider some of the factors that enabled this showcase and the production’s contribution to cultural regeneration.

A Toroihi rāua ko Kāhira is the second production of one of Shakespeare’s play in te reo, produced just over a decade later than Don C. Selwyn’s landmark film, The Maori Merchant of Venice (2001). Ngākau Toa’s production can, like Selwyn’s film, be situated in relation to, and is enabled by, significant efforts by Māori communities and the New Zealand Government since the 1970s to regenerate Māori cultural practices and language. This work was directed toward redressing the devastating effects of the British colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand on Māori, which can be measured in lower educational achievement, poorer heath records and lower life expectancy between Māori and their Pākehā (white New Zealanders of predominantly European descent) counterparts. In addition, members of the company have also been instrumental in developments to improve access to te reo and Māori culture. The effect of these initiatives and work can be seen in Ngākau Toa’s onstage performance and in the biographies of some cast members, such as Kimo Houltham (Toroihi), who benefitted directly from Māori immersion education programmes and is a fluent speaker of te reo. In addition to being enabled by these broad cultural shifts, the production has been supported by public bodies set up to develop Māori language and culture. In turn, Ngākau Toa worked to promote te reo and performing arts, through media interviews in print and on radio and television and by maximising attendance for their performances in Wellington and Auckland by performing for koha (donation) rather than selling tickets, with the exception of one fundraising performance in Auckland to support the trip to the Globe.

The arresting sight of a group of spectators in the yard at the Globe who paid their respect to the production with a haka at the end of the performance honours the work the production has done in promoting te reo inside and outside Aotearoa New Zealand. The final performance of the evening was, in effect, offered by the group in the yard who performed outside the ‘official’ showcase of the festival. The Globe subsequently described the performance of the haka in the yard in a publicity email as an example of ‘true Globe style’, seamlessly appropriating local cultural practices into the mythology of the Globe. Alternatively, this final haka might stand, as it did for me as a New Zealander, as a profound reminder and acknowledgement of the importance of community and whanau (familial) networks, not only in helping to enable the production but also in continuing to support and develop te reo and other taonga (cultural treasures) beyond the event of a high-profile performance such as this. Like Selwyn’s film and developments in Māori cultural practices, te reo, film, radio, theatre, television and education more broadly, the production offers a vibrant performance that looks to a future in which te reo and other taonga are yet more secure. However, the overall health of te reo, which is one of the language performed at the Globe to Globe festival that is most in need of protection and nurturing, provides a sobering reminder of the effects of colonisation.

Catherine Silverstone
Senior Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies 

Queen Mary University of London