Local Culture: The Pohutukawa Tree

Pohutukawa-tree.pngFirst produced in 1957, New Zealand play The Pohutukawa Tree by Bruce Mason, tells a similar story to that of Patricia Grace’s Potiki. It’s the story of a proud matriarch, Aroha Mataira, the widowed heir to the chieftainship of the Ngati Raukura tribe and the mother of the last Maori family living on their traditional lands at the small township of Te Parenga. The rest of the tribe have long since sold their land to the Atkinsons, the Pakeha (White) landholding family who have dominated the area for three generations, and Mrs. Mataira and her two children, Johnny (18) and Queenie (17) work for the Atkinsons.

Mrs. Mataira is a woman torn between two worlds. On the one hand she is deeply aware of her Maori heritage and particularly her ancestor, the warrior-chief Whetu Marama, who once slew a Pakeha captain in battle – the Pohutukawa tree of the title, a spreading tree with red flowers, sprung on the place where the captain fell. On the other hand, she is equally dedicated to Jesus Christ as the Lord of her life, and views her continued presence in Te Parenga as a symbolic act of atonement and reconciliation for the violence and conflict of the past.

This isn’t a story of goodies and baddies: the closest the play comes to a ‘bad guy’ is Roy McDowell, the gormless son of a grocer who has a habit of running away from his problems. Rather, it is the story of ordinary people who are all seeking something ‘good’. The trouble is, none of them share a common idea of what exactly that means.

To Mrs. Mataira, it is living a life worthy of Jesus Christ and Whetu Marama – not necessarily in that order – and seeing her children do the same; Queenie as a nurse and Johnny as a preacher.

To her daughter Queenie it is love and motherhood.

To Johnny and Roy it is having fun in the youthful sense of drinking and, in Roy’s case, girls.

To Mr. Atkinson, the landowner, it is keeping the land productive, while to his daughter Sylvie it is marriage – in a touching moment at the end of the play, Mrs. Atkinson realises that her life is fundamentally empty of meaning and purpose.

To the priest, Athol Sedgwick, it is sharing the gospel of peace and the love of Christ in atonement for his participation in the violence of World War Two.

It’s a challenging play, and I feel privileged that the local Repertory Theatre were willing to tackle it. Lead actress Maddy Newton, as Aroha Mataira, occasionally fumbled with her lines (which were many), but never with her character, and the other actors were similarly, or even more, talented.

I went to The Pohutukawa Tree on the same day I had a ‘deep and meaningful’ conversation with a lovely colleague about various spiritual issues, in which I expressed my view that people and their relationships are messy, life is messy, and the world is messy, so if God is living and personal and relates to us as we live in the world then it stands to reason that that relationship is likely to be messy too. The Pohutukawa Tree brilliantly captures all that messiness and complexity, as well as the messiness and complexity of cross-cultural relationships, and challenges the viewer to think more deeply about them. I’m glad I went.

Excuse the lack of pictures with this post: I wasn’t about to disrupt either the play or my enjoyment of it with photography, and to date the Rep haven’t posted any pictures I can ‘borrow’.

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One thought on “Local Culture: The Pohutukawa Tree

  1. Hi! I really appreciate people who not only get the play but how they think and dig deep consciously. It’s such great learning! I appreciated often ….is it….this or that of those Pohutukawa characters. Bruce was great at making us think. But the complexities of the clash of cultures was and is a massive challenge to mentally compartmentalize whilst delivering, performing and being true to character. It was the perfect start of the world of acting even though I had to seriously shake myself up to do justice to myself and to the play. I fell but I still got up, I liked that you could. I still am processing and debriefing as often as I can with public on their impressions of the play but especially how it reminded them of their own personal experiences at that time!!! That’s been special. I would hardly call Maori messy but I do know that since the signing of the treaty it’s been a bloody mess for us to fathom. Not only that….but how we get along. It was sad throughout the play that the racist comments throughout the play were true to form with the attitudes of both cultures. It was sad that there was so much fear based around such magnificent differences of values and cultures. I was so glad I learnt my lines but I am more glad I don’t experience that kind of racism as much as my tupuna did back then. Arohanui Maddy Newton

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