The Assembly Hall on the Mound is a fat cauldron of a venue, usually bubbling with Presbyterian ministers but today stirred up by some heathens. Oh, behave! My predictable jibes have no purchase over “Haka” because the show’s Māori performers are not just swirling savages but proud subscribers to the military heritage of the British Empire. They are also dancing in the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo this year and their show commemorates the 28th (Māori) Battalion which had fought in Greece, Italy, and North Africa during WW2.
In the initial exhilaration of their entry on to the stage, however, they look like everyday savages. There are Polynesian-style hair-feathers and skirts; the warriors flourish ineffective weapons which resemble table-tennis paddles whilst their womenfolk have little goatee beards tattooed on to their chins. The compere, who is perhaps necessarily a woman to offset the traditionalist division of the dancers into fearsome males and lovely females, rather hopelessly insists that the warriors are “fierce.” Alas, they evince all the family-friendly menace of Scottish Highlanders.
These fighters properly belong to wistful, Victorian wars in which everybody adheres to a spirit of schoolboy chivalry. Apply heather and tartan and their show could be an adaptation of Walter Scott’s Waverley. The most damage that they could do is dazzle you with their smiles. This huge venue is soon filled to the ceiling with their goodwill.
Tychy has no patience with this sort of noble-savage crap. I prefer my savages to be mean, squinty little men who fondle shrunken heads and sip on missionary broth. Once the eye has rested on “Haka” for a while, however, it seems all of a sudden familiar. These cheerfully synchronised performers could be American cheerleaders at Halloween and, however urgent and militaristic their show, there is no concealing the fact that their tragic history has been transformed into a musical.
Halfway through the show and my cynicism has dried up for good like a spilled drink. My original impression of how striking these dancers had looked would never fade and, in fact, the more you look at them the more vivid they become. Their bodies are stunning and stark; they together glow with the unearthly clarity of a full moon. Moreover, the effect of the men’s grotesquely-heavy clambering dances is leavened by the women’s singing, which is as gentle and silken as if murmured under the breath.
There is some fun audience interaction in this show, but the most powerful moment is also the simplest. The compere stops to survey the audience and she requests that they call out where they have travelled here from. As countries and cities begin to fly through the air, it is like lights coming on across the globe: England, Ireland, New York, Spain, the Cayman Islands, the Netherlands, California. In this moment, the Māori have the whole world at their feet.