Modern Māori Quartet: Two Worlds is a delightful and profoundly moving opening to Big World, Up Close, says Alison Croggon
As the ice sheets of Antarctica melt over us, sending rains and winds northwards to envelop Melbourne in a freezing downpour, it’s hard to beat the burrowing instinct. It’s pitch dark by 6pm, and a couch in front of a heater is only the place to be.
Or so it seemed to me, venturing in arch grouch mode to Arts Centre Melbourne last night to see Modern Māori Quartet: Two Worlds. From the moment the show began, my grumpiness began to lift. By its end, I was delighted. Theatre! How can anyone not want to see it?
Modern Māori Quartet are the opening act of Big World, Up Close, a curated festival of First Nations and diasporic artists which runs from now until September. This July, they’re on in tandem with the dance work Between Tiny Cities. The only downside is the shortness of the seasons: both shows close this weekend.
Two Worlds has a simple premise – four Māori men – Koro, Big Bro, Uncle and Bub – are trapped in a kind of anteroom to the afterlife. According to God – a stage manager/voice over who is, rightly, a woman – in order to free themselves, they will have to reveal the traumas that trapped them during their lives.
In the space of an hour, via some highly skilful theatre making, some brilliant singing and very clever writing, they cover a lot of ground. This is a beautifully made theatre work masquerading as cabaret, sneaking in its storytelling almost incidentally. The result is a work that explores colonialism and masculinity with a surprising profundity, which delivers its stories lightly, but also with deep feeling.
The lightness comes from the harmonies, dance moves and comedy of the four performers. They are an act polished to a profound sheen, seamlessly integrating haka into smooth dance moves as they show us the genealogy and beauty of Māori music culture.
The characters are a various bunch from various times: Koro (Matutaera Ngaropo) is a World War 2 veteran destroyed by PTSD, while Bub (Matariki Whatarau), the most recent arrival, is a young man, the first of his family to go to university. Big Bro (Blake “Rutene” Spooner) has the full range of diseases particularly afflict First Nations people, from diabetes type 2 to heart disease, and sings in a cover band. And Uncle (Francis Kora) has rejected his Indigenous identity, and has lived a life of fast women, fast cars and hard drinking.
Between them, these four characters cover most of the 20th century and a wide range of Māori experience. At its heart, this show is a question about what it means to be a man: and what they must all confront is their vulnerability. Uncle’s story is so painful that he can only speak of it in the third person, as something that happened to his “friend”; after being beaten every day for speaking Māori at school, he rejects his family, internalising the racism he has been taught. But each character has his epiphany, which releases him.
Two Worlds is the kind of work that could easily be mawkish, but the intelligence of the writing and the performances ensures that it powers past that into profound feeling. Highly recommended on a freezing Melbourne evening. Especially for the male of the species.
Modern Māori Quartet: Two Worlds, written by the company. Musical direction by Matu Ngaropo. Performed by Matutaera Ngaropo, Matariki Whatarau, Francis Kora and Blake “Rutene” Spooner. Big World, Up Close, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 14. Bookings
Wheelchair access, assistive hearing, Companion Card
Auslan Interpreted Performance – Thursday 11 July, 7.30pm