Back again as a Fringe venue, the old Roxy Art House is still nodding in and out of consciousness, and you sometimes wish that this beautiful building could finally wake up for good. Hurrying to see the Auckland Theatre Company’s “On the Upside Down of the World,” I take the stairs two at a time and become aware that I am passing a gorgeous exhibition of paintings by Otar Imerlishvili. I’ll look at them on the way out, I promise myself. When the audience are let out by a different door, I have the dismayed sense of the Roxy returning to its slumbers.
Let’s stick to the pictorial and start with the poster. It seems to advertise a solemn drama about a missionary’s wife who has run off with a Māori warrior. Befrocked in calico, the wife is apparently staring ashen-faced into her own damnation; the warrior looks sad and sensual, naked aside from the tattoos which are so thick that he seems to be dressed in them. Their love must be epic and every normal person would surely judge Victorian civilisation a price worth paying to canoodle with this barbarian.
Wrong and, in fact, doubly wrong! The savage is the adopted son of Mary Ann Martin (Laurel Devenie) and her gentleness is actually maternal. Her son is lost in more ways than one: his people have largely departed the historical stage and, this being a solo performance, he will never set foot on the stage before us.
The real-life Martin sailed to New Zealand in 1841, to join her husband William who had been appointed the country’s chief justice. She helped to establish a hospital and she fought the good fight. It was an age in which Christian missions allowed women, albeit usually rather grim ones, to embark on all manner of spectacular adventures amongst strange societies (although this class equally included straightforward explorers such as Alexandrine Tinné and Mary Kingsley).
The writer Arthur Meek relates Martin’s story with lavish Victorian relish, but this play’s liberal politics are by now as traditional as Macdermott’s War Song. The kiwi bird, with its flightlessness submitting an innovative metaphor for housebound femininity, leads us down a familiar path to where that old stalwart is waiting: the gutsy, morally-resolute Victorian dame. There is also some old-fashioned liberal guilt about stealing all the natives’ land and this is also captured in a striking metaphor. The jewels of Enlightened justice have been shown to the Māori but when they reach for them, the lid is slammed down on their fingers. This play still indulges in a little slamming of its own. The Māori son strips and melts back into the forest, apparently confirming that the natives cannot really be Enlightened in the end.
The trouble with this play is that the exploitation of the Māori is pretty much the same as that of all other indigenous peoples throughout the nineteenth century. “On the Upside Down of the World” does not make an old story any more inventive or unpredictable by locating it in New Zealand. The play always remains fresh and likeable, and Martin’s outrage never sounds strained. The scene in which she confronts the blood father of her adopted son also achieves an intensity of drama which is rarely found within a solo show.
Once the son is gone Martin is bellowing and plunging in her grief and then she leans on the wrong beam and… oh no! The scenery has not been bolted to the floor and three conjoined ladders, which are supposed to convey New Zealand’s soaring trees, fall on top of her. In an instant of schoolboy mischief, which takes the adult part of my mind completely by surprise, I pray for these ladders to hit the row in front of them, sending trees toppling into the audience. Perhaps Devenie has had the same thought, for she pauses for a second to eye the scenery, before the show continues with barely a skipped heartbeat.