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Kate Herbert reviews MICHAEL JAMES MANAIA (**** stars)

See the review in its original context here

NEW ZEALAND ACTOR, TE KOHE TUHAKA, with his formidable muscularity, blazing, dark eyes and sensitive portrayal of a man on the edge of violence and despair, is a powerful presence as Michael James Manaia in John Broughton’s 1991 play.

With bold and unsentimental self-narration, Tuhaka imbues the story with an ominous undercurrent of mania and rage as he leads us through Michael’s early life with his war veteran, Maori father and English mother and extended Maori family.

After a gentle beginning, the production, directed by Nathaniel Lees, escalates into compelling, passionate, physical storytelling when Tuhaka navigates into the horrors of jungle warfare in 1960s Vietnam, then back to New Zealand where life throws him a different, confronting predicament.

Broughton’s script could possibly benefit from contracting and editing Michael’s life before the war, in order to jettison us sooner into his more dramatic, personal conflicts in Vietnam and his inability to deal with a colourless life back home, without an enemy to fight.

Tuhaka weaves playfulness into Michael’s darkness as, with boyish glee and astonishing athleticism, he leaps on and off a high platform, paddles a raft and gets up to pranks with his beloved little brother, Mattie.

However, we are constantly aware of grim layers lurking beneath his tough surface, as he snarls at memories of his father’s drunken violence, hints at dark secrets and apologises to his absent wife, Lizzy, for an unknown sin – or is it a crime?

Tuhaka, with his bold and impassioned performance, captures the fractured life and psychology of a young man whose hopes and dreams of a family life were destroyed by War.

Lees direction is robust and energetic and the sparse design of wooden platforms (Daniel Williams) focuses our attentions purely on Tuhaka and his physical presence.

Despite Broughton’s opening scenes being too wordy and prolonged, this is a production with heart and a riveting, committed performance from Tuhaka.

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