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WHITE CLOUD: Songs & Stories
By Tim Finn and Ken Duncum
Directed by Simon Bennett

at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 12 Sep 2012 to 22 Sep 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 13 Sep 2012

Confronted with a stage crammed with musical paraphernalia – brass and percussion instruments prominent between electric guitars and keyboards with a clarinet lurking behind – our first instinct is to think we are in for a loud show. What we are treated to, however, is a richly textured blend of beautifully melodic music and poetically evocative prose. 

“Who are we? Why does it matter?” is the provocation, responded to from a Pakeha perspective this time.

Director Simon Bennett has returned to Bats, the theatre he co-founded 23 years ago, to premiere White Cloud: Songs & Stories by Tim Finn and Ken Duncum. The theatrical simplicity of their staging belies the depth of experience explored.

Plucking ripe samples from the family trees of Duncum and Finn, two actors – Stephen Lovatt and Dena Kennedy – tell stories interwoven with original songs, played and sung by six musicians: Brett Adams (vocals; guitar), Ben King (vocals; guitar & bass), Lisa Crawley (vocals; keyboards and clarinet), Kingsley Melhuish* (brass) and Chris O-Connor (percussion).

The music has a jazz-pop feel with a bit of funk and soul at strategic moments. King and Crawley sing most of the songs, either solo or in duet, and their voices are wonderfully complementary. Drawing us in to a wide range of human experiences, Kennedy and Lovatt simply inhabit the stories they tell, off mic or on, depending on the level of music behind them. The sound mix – never to be taken for granted – is impeccable (sound engineer: madmat).

Ulli Briese's lighting design and operation are likewise unobtrusive, as are the images projected on to the almost transparent baffles hanging from the ceiling (AV design: Johann Nortje). I'd have liked to be more aware of them but avoiding the trap of having to illustrate every beat of the show is fair enough and the ephemeral nature of what does loom aloft intermittently does align with the recurring theme song: ‘White Cloud, Black Shadow'.

Spoken by Lovatt, it's a child's eye view of settling in Rotorua that opens the show before the title song kicks in. Then, to redress the notion that Pakeha is what you call yourself when you want to forget your origins, a quick trot through evolution out of Africa and through Britain brings one family's early settler ancestors to “the bottom of the globe”.  

The song, ‘Pakeha', suggests that if we wonder who we are and we're not quite sure, chances are we're Pakeha. And so to Petone beach, Wellington and the remote Rangitikei whence a memory arises of a toetoe whare with walls beautifully crafted by Maori artisans, being replaced by a two-storey colonial house in 1866,

‘Slippery Identities' tells us only time will tell us who we are. And there is nothing linear about the timeline of these tellings. It jumps about in just the same way a conversation would within a family gathering.

Presumably articulating one or both of the writers' own responses to low cultural self-esteem, Kennedy enjoins us to have a little faith in ourselves, including our ‘cinema of unease', our voice and our accent – which prompts me to celebrate (given my rants in other reviews) the fact that the singers do not default to American accents but do indeed have faith in their own voices.

The advent of a fabled good day in Wellington brings us to a reprise of ‘White Cloud Black Shadow' which then immerses us in the darker dimensions.

The approach of Christmas in Newtown contrasts the blood red needles of pohutukawa flowers with the strange green turf of a McDonalds playground. And the identity question is approached from another angle with the story of Martin whose disfiguring accident made him hard to recognise. ‘Going Too Fast' alerts us to the highway of speed and its aftermath in courtrooms: a lesson I take it was learned the hard way in one of the families.

A flashback to 1855, flax milling and a father's way of dealing with a strange paralysis that doctors say dooms him, proves to be an inspirational tale of overcoming adversity, albeit with the loyal support of family and community.

Quite how this segues into ‘Strong Connection' – celebrating how land, sea and sky connects us back to Heathrow – I don't recall; nor its connection to the next story, about how the town of Denniston died when the coal mining stopped. But the insight this embodies into how a childhood trauma can be stamped on someone's identity, requiring a grandchild to get his head around the idea of his old lady of a grandmother once being a young girl, captures yet another truth of human perception.

Collective guilt surfaces, too, when a family line is connected back to the shameful events at Parihaka during the land confiscations. The classic image of kids kicking a rugby ball – ‘Kicking A Football' captures that time in life when being part of a team makes us feel we can do anything – packs down against 1981 and the Springbok Tour: yet another clash with “the wrong white crowd”. (I thought the song in this sequence was ‘Rage Storm' but the programme lists it as ‘Rainstorm'.)

The onstage company joins in with the recorded karanga of lament and renewal to presage the next reprise of ‘White Cloud Black Shadow'. As with a partly cloudy and windy day, each time the song plays it throws a different light on who we are.

Celtic and Catholic connections are celebrated – “My tribe comes from all over” – and early impressions, mispronunciations and misunderstandings offer comic relief amid the highs and lows of making new lives. ‘Clarity Begins At Home' affirms the value of a close relationship.

We are reminded that although New Zealand has not been militarily invaded, we have been colonised by every other means. As for our attempts to make the land behave the way we think it should, the case has not been closed (a sentiment expressed in a song called ‘Sometimes A Glimpse', I think).

The final song, ‘Flying Dream' speaks of the sacred mountain and the holy town, and implies an overview of the bigger picture as random names from the family trees are called out by the assembled ensemble.

In just 70 minutes it is astonishing how much of ourselves White Cloud: Songs & Stories allows us to recover and discover. As with the other biographical show across the road, Flowers From My Mother's Garden, the particulars of these family stories resonate widely in an inventive, evocative presentation.

Having gained so much from seeing so many Maori and Pasifika shows over the past few years, I'd urge people not to think only Pakeha audiences would relate to either White Cloud or Flowers. I warmly recommend both shows to all inhabitants of, and visitors to, this land.

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*(Nick van Dijk will replace Melhuish from 19-22 September.) 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);