All the world's a stage for Rawiri

Bard working: Rawiri Paratene’s Ngakau Toa troupe performs  Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre.
Bard working: Rawiri Paratene’s Ngakau Toa troupe performs Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre.

This very week 449 years ago, around April 23, William Shakespeare gasped his first breath in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Having established himself as the greatest English writer who ever lived, he shuffled off his mortal coil 52 years later, on his own birthday. This might be news to you and me, but not to veteran local actor Rawiri Paratene.

"I adore Shakespeare, and he's the reason I chose to be in this acting game," says Paratene in a moving new documentary screening at 8.30 tonight on Maori Television. "My family even celebrated his birthday. We would do sonnets, dress up in Elizabethan clothes, and tear the dinner chicken apart with our bare hands." Paratene's kids grew up thinking this level of bardly reverence was the norm.

On the phone from a snow-bound London hotel, Paratene laughs when I mention it. "Yes, that's true. A few years later my daughter was a student in Auckland and she phoned me on Shakespeare's birthday, really disappointed because none of her mates dressed up and did sonnets and so on. She always thought it was like a national holiday."

Rawiri Paratene: ‘Here I was, this 15-year-old Maori kid from Otara, deeply moved by a play that had been written by an Englishman hundreds of years ago.’
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Rawiri Paratene: ‘Here I was, this 15-year-old Maori kid from Otara, deeply moved by a play that had been written by an Englishman hundreds of years ago.’ 

Born in the Hokianga of Nga Puhi descent, now 59, Paratene was the first Maori student to graduate from the New Zealand Drama School, and has since been a fixture on our stages and screens for decades. He's best known internationally for his portrayal of stubborn grandfather Koro in 2002's Whale Rider and "the second son on God" in 2010 feature The Insatiable Moon but local viewers may also recall him in Joe and Koro, Xena, Duggan and Shortland Street or, earlier still, as a presenter on Play School.

Paratene has also directed extensively, won a Robert Burns Fellowship for his writing and spent several years as deputy chairman of the New Zealand Film Commission. Along the way, Shakespeare has remained an abiding personal inspiration.

"He has. I'm over here at the moment doing a production of King Lear but my interest goes back to when I was a teenager. In fact, my first visit to live theatre was in the late 60s, and we got the bus into the city to see one of his plays. It really changed my life. Here I was, this 15-year-old Maori kid from Otara, deeply moved by a play that had been written by an Englishman in Suffolk hundreds of years ago."

When an offer came to bring a Maori theatre company to London's Globe Theatre last year, Paratene leapt at the chance. Performing Troilus and Cressida in te reo Maori, Paratene's Ngakau Toa troupe was invited to open the Globe to Globe event, in which 37 countries would perform 37 of Shakespeare's plays in 37 languages.

"Since we came from the furthest place possible, we got the honour of opening it. At first the press over here were sceptical that people would want to see Shakespeare in all these different languages, but how wrong they were! When the Kenyan production came, the African community came out in force. When the Polish and the Korean and the Bangladeshi productions came, their communities packed it out, and so on. Our own production was full of New Zealanders, and it sold out months in advance. We used a lot of kapa haka and physical theatre to strengthen the play's subtext. It really worked. The following day, the reviews said that it was the clearest representation of that play the reviewers had ever seen."

This is quite an achievement. With frequent lurches in mood between bawdy farce and bleak tragedy, literary scholar Joyce Carol Oates called Troilus and Cressida "that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare plays". You want long-winded and desolate? You got it. Near the final curtain, true love is destroyed and a dead hero has his body dragged around the walls of Troy, sending audiences back out onto the street with heavy hearts. Theatre-goers have long struggled to warm to the play in English, let alone te reo Maori.

"Yes, it's one of what they call his ‘problem plays', but it became more popular from the 70s onwards because of Vietnam. Troilus and Cressida concerns a pointless war that went on and on and was extremely costly to a big empire, with a few isolated warmongers keeping it going. The play ridicules both the Trojans and the Greeks, and its messages about war are utterly contemporary."

Paratene also believes Shakespeare's work is portrayed as more difficult than it really is. "The barrier to understanding Shakespeare isn't the language he used; it's the class-bound bullshit of theatre from the Victorian era onwards, when it suddenly became a pursuit of the rich. In Shakespeare's day, going to the theatre was like going to a bloody football match, and it's still like that at the Globe. There's nowhere to hide on that stage, and no fancy lighting, and no sound cues. There are none of the tricks of modern theatre, so you stand or fall on how well you engage with that crowd."

Directed by Mike Johnathan, Troilus and Cressida: The Road to the Globe follows Paratene, director Rachel House and their 18-strong cast during the gruelling three month lead-up to the Globe show, offering a fascinating backstage view of the process of bringing a difficult creative work to life. You can almost smell the adrenaline as actors confront their fears, forget their lines and struggle to emotionally connect with this ancient story so that they can transmit it to others.

We then travel with the cast to London. It feels like a cross-cultural pilgrimage of sorts, returning an important ancient work to its spiritual home after it has been invested with new meaning in a distant land. Friends are made immediately; upon arrival at the Globe, one of the cast members hongis a brass bust of Shakespeare, saying "Kia ora, Wiremu". In the end, the performance is a triumph, and so is this documentary, which won the special jury prize at the recent FIFO Film Festival in Tahiti. To watch the cast after the final curtain, on Shakespeare's home patch, with tears streaming down their faces as a full house thunders its approval, is really something.

"I first went to the Globe to do a study fellowship in 2007 and the first time I performed on that stage, I thought, holy shit! This is just like a marae! Because you can't bullshit on a marae. It's intimate and huge all at once and the minute you start talking above the people, your argument is lost.

Also, there's some magnificent orators on the marae, alongside some pretty useless ones. That's the same on the Globe stage. So I thought, one day I want to come here with a whole lot of Maori actors and we will rock that house. Five years later, there we were, and we rocked it, for sure! After the show, the director at the Globe said our production had f---ed up Troilus and Cressida for the next 20 years, because who would want to go and see some namby-pamby Rada graduates take it on after they've seen our version in te reo? That, for me, was the highest compliment possible."

Troilus and Cressida: The Road to The Globe, Sunday, 8.30pm, Maori TV.

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