Kororareka: The Ballad of Maggie Flynn
Oneonesix, Whangarei, NZ
Monday 26th June, 2017
5/5 stars
Reviewed by: JORJA HETA

 

“There’s a tale in my bones, fighting to be told.” Kororareka: The Ballad of Maggie Flynn is an incredible portrayal of empowerment, adversity and bone-chilling burdens that lie within the history of New Zealand. Set in Russell, the “hellhole of the Pacific,” we see a fierce Irish convict’s adventures after she arrives, captain of a whaling ship. Her experiences shift from aquatic to slavery, as we see the events women endured during the era of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

A play inspired by women in our country, it shares the vibrant and true stories that have never been told before in its most ultimate and graphic form. Prepare to be taken on a journey as we see, through the eyes of Maggie Flynn, the past pioneers that have shaped the environment we live and breathe in today.

Unlike most productions, the play did not begin with the crowd being confronted by the actresses face-on but rather an uncomfortable pitch black darkness. As figures emerged from opposite sides of the theatre, passing the audience with their sleek presence a feeling of unease entered. Only when they started speaking did we hear the distinct Irish and British accents as they climbed and narrated their voyage to the most wild and barbaric place of the Pacific, Kororareka. It was impressive to see the creative use of props, particularly the scaffolding tower as a ship with the actresses playing the part of men at sea.

The gender limitations within the all female-cast proved to be no barrier as the shipmen used a water bottle to urinate in a bucket. As a comical way to indulge in the needs of their digestive system, I was impressed by the creative use of props to substitute for the male organ they didn’t have. Squeezing and controlling the excess of fluid that came out like a cascading waterfall it led to an uproar of laughter from the crowd, sustained when we were introduced to the eccentric French settler played by Alison Bruce.

From the quirky accent to the bright circus clothing, this character was the clown of the night and a definite favourite of mine. When he meets the Māori chief Mata whom at the time has taken Maggie as his slave, the Frenchman, unaware of our style of traditional greetings kisses him on the cheek. When an insulted Mata points towards his nose for a hongi instead he again misinterprets, leading to a kiss on both cheeks. Although a theatrical encounter, it was a truthful depiction of miscommunication between foreigners and other cultures. Perhaps inspired by Te Tiriti o Waitangi on how things can get lost in translation.

The French settler is seen taking a liking to Maggie’s toughness and again mistakes her genuine distaste for him as ‘playing hard to get’ and attempts to pursue her. With Alison’s high vocal register for the character and provocative actions it makes her character indeed look like a clown, for he is playing the fool. But the comedic wit of the play doesn’t stop there, as near the end a much older Maggie becomes Madam of New Zealand’s first brothel. This part of our raunchy history was peppered with humour, leaving everyone in hysterics as we saw the ‘alluring’ prostitutes with braces, moles and even inflated balloons for breasts. The director’s intention to make the girls hideous and desperate for company captured the eye of the audience, especially when some took to seducing a few men from the crowd. Audience engagement definitely enhanced the production, but it was not all humour throughout Maggie’s journey.

Described by Victoria Abbott as a “slippery and ambiguous character,” the heroine Maggie Flynn endures a series of emotional adversity. Losing her whaling ship, watching the family she grows to care for die and having a miscarriage she shifts from a feisty, empowered wahine to a woman beaten, battered and defeated. As she trades her morals for money Maggie’s habitual impulse to run away from her past becomes her undoing as the ghosts of her mistakes continue to haunt her.

Victoria and Alison both share the role of Maggie Flynn, and we see a potency in this during the internal conflict when Maggie is forced to confront her past self and the person she has become. White lighting and mist serve instrumental to the production, intensifying the ethereal dispute of Maggie vs. Maggie so we can see the degree to which experiences can change a person.

I felt the use of body and space was done well, especially when Maggie is hung in chains as a slave, however the characters’ constant climbing and moving at times deemed a distraction from the overall storyline. It almost appeared like the second half was rushed after so much time was spent developing the romance between Chief Mata and Maggie. Various events occurred after the brutal murder of Maggie’s Māori whanau like the French settlers, Irish soldiers and the brothel, but although entertaining, there was not enough plot development to appear as believable. I couldn’t feel as strong a connection to the flow of the play because as quickly as we saw one story we were whisked off to the other. Yet despite the hasty structure, the power of the acting carried it through to the end.

Overall The Ballad of Maggie Flynn is a vividly empowering production that challenges us to think about our colonial history. I left that night educated and inquisitive, after learning so many components of Aotearoa that I had not yet known before. The visual messages, subliminal references and biculturalism of Māori and Irish culture communicated the adventures of Maggie Flynn in a clean, playful and confronting way that left a long-lasting impression in the minds of all that viewed it.

I credit much of its success to the writer, Paolo Rotondo and the alternative version of telling history typically shared by men from a woman’s perspective. Taking a time machine back to the panorama of our past the roots of Maggie’s makeup are a combination of New Zealand women whose stories have been silenced until now. Perhaps one of the best plays I have ever watched, The Ballad of Maggie Flynn unveils the unique events of our past, mingling romance with reality, truth with tragedy to portray the resilience of our people during an era of war and greed. Who knew history could be so entertaining?

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