Review: The Vultures

Adam Goodall reviews the centrepiece of this year's Kia Mau Festival, Mīria George's darkly funny satire The Vultures.

Adam Goodall reviews the centrepiece of this year's Kia Mau Festival, Miria George's darkly funny satire The Vultures.

The Vultures is covered in thorns: barbs sharp enough to draw blood, designed to be buried in the heads and hearts of the Pākehā powers-that-be and the conservative Māori that give them their ‘credibility’. With her fifth play, Miria George takes this establishment to task for maintaining a society that has at every level built Pākehā up at the expense of Māori. Our financial system, our judiciary, our government, the Treaty itself: all come under fire for the role they play in sustaining this inequality.

One of the sharpest thorns is one you might not even notice the first time around. Toward the end, Champion Gymnast Te Rāwhitiroa (the charming and nimble Tola Newbury) takes a seat under the towering set so he can read a book in peace. Two scenes pass before he’s disturbed by his cousin Kiwi banging down the door. What he’s reading, though, is far from incidental detail; it’s Ranginui Walker’s notably incisive and critical history of New Zealand, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou - Struggle Without End.

No-one draws any attention to this, not that their silence is a surprise. Of the five characters in The Vultures, three - Sister Nurse Hinemoa, Magazine Magnate Atawhai and Prodigious Businessman Petara - are far more preoccupied with the dying family farm. The land’s tired, the water’s toxic and the whole thing’s locked inside a trust, only accessible if all three siblings consent. But where Hinemoa sees her hapū and all its connections to this whenua, Atawhai and Petara see stone-cold profit: if they can get the farm out of the trust, they can leverage its value for the purchase and development of two adjacent properties. First, though, they need reluctant Hinemoa’s signature - assuming the younger generation doesn’t get in the way.

The mechanics of this Chinatown-style intrigue are never especially clear, but they’re not especially important, either. At its most basic level, The Vultures is a satire of Māori one-percenters, the generation of tribal executives and chairs who opened their arms to market capitalism and damn the consequences for their tangata whenua. The land is just one victim of that embrace.

George focuses most of her scorn on Atawhai and Petara and what they represent. Magazine Magnate Atawhai’s gotten meaner and more judgmental as the economy’s put a squeeze on her business, while Petara’s her hunchbacked partner in crime, an energetic missionary for the gospel of business. They’re callous and conniving villains, make-believe kaumātua dressed to the nines in equestrian-wear and sleek tui-feather pauldrons, and the actors more than rise to the challenge.

As Atawhai, Awhina Rose Ashby acts as though everything’s an obstacle on the road to her Hollywood biopic, glaring at people without provocation and rattling through conversations like it’s everyone else’s job to keep up. Natano Keni’s ‘Prodigious Petara’ is the opposite, a blusterer who rocks and stumbles under the weight of his own self-regard, not to mention his hunch. Ashby and Keni relish the extravagance of their characters, casually intruding on everyone else’s personal space and drawing out grandiose lines like “No empire is gained without a battle”. They are puffed-up preeners, buying into their own hype, and are absolutely delicious to watch.

Hinemoa and her daughter, Child Genius Kiwi, are their nominated antagonists, so Carrie Green and Hine Parata-Walker push those characters to extremes in the opposite direction. Hinemoa’s a peacemaker in mothballed furs, a hen in a den of wolves; to match her character’s agonising concern for everyone else’s humanity, Green turns the exasperation up to eleven. Meanwhile, Parata-Walker plays her teen scientist as perpetually precocious, a breathless and slightly obnoxious voice of reason. Unfamiliar with the whānau and convinced she can push back against their negligence and greed, Kiwi’s the closest The Vultures has to a detective, a figure of audience identification. Parata-Walker’s broad performance means she’s often too much of a caricature, though; she’s a collection of idiosyncrasies searching for something in which to ground themselves.

As in her previous work - and what remains, Urban Hymns - George diagnoses our nation’s ills with elegant language and an uncompromising understanding of our political and cultural landscape.

The Vultures is best when it’s moving at speed, characters insulting and conspiring with each other with the speed and chemistry of leads in a hardboiled noir. George sets a cracking pace from the very start, using this verbal duelling to tease out details about these characters and their past, building their whakapapa through a sort of snowball effect. A fly-by joke about the Global Financial Crisis, for example, reveals the irony of ‘Prodigious’ Petara’s nickname, but it also points to a gap in the history of their whānau and their iwi, hinting at what’s to come.

This savage repartee screeches to a halt when we need to be brought up to speed with the story. Kiwi’s lack of familiarity with her whānau is the usual excuse, particularly in the first half; when she’s around, everyone else is much more likely to drop into monologues or extended dialogues so that they can tell her who they are, where they’ve come from, how they’ve gotten to point, what the deal is with everyone else. George front-loads this exposition so that we have a better understanding of what’s being held up to ridicule the further in we get, but the “Whos” this and the “Hows” and the “Whys” shove a stick in the wheels so often that it’s hard to fall into a steady rhythm, especially during the first act.

When The Vultures finds and locks into that rhythm, it’s as fiery and intelligent as anything I’ve seen in Wellington in the last decade. George’s script and direction is fuelled by a compassion for her subjects, all prey for a carnivorous system they believe they can conquer against all odds. That’s most clear in the way that George punctuates her scenes with brief tableaux that give a physical life to each character’s most raw and fundamental emotions. From Petara’s pleas to an unnamed god to spare his life to Atawhai’s progression from her predatory inner life, George exposes growth even when the characters try to hide it, finds something worth saving even when they’re plotting murder and betrayal.

This compassion doesn’t soften George’s bite. As in her previous work - and what remains, Urban Hymns - George diagnoses our nation’s ills with elegant language and an uncompromising understanding of our political and cultural landscape. As The Vultures moves toward its melancholic end, George unravels the ways that Māori have been degraded, exploited and divided by an imported capitalist tradition that prizes individual gain over wider well-being.

Overshadowed by Tony DeGoldi’s grim obelisk of a set - a set of lacquered wood panels and a tilted pier of weathered 2x4, splitting the stage into two linear planes that limit actor movement in ways both helpful and unhelpful - Atawhai and Petara gloat about playing off politicians (John, James, Te Ururoa) and wielding their platforms and privilege like they own the coolest toy in the playground. But their decades-old conservatism, their obsession with the dollar value of everything at the expense of its spiritual and personal value, has left them vulnerable and oblivious to what they’ve become. “The land is not well,” Hinemoa tells them, and neither are they - their whakapapa rots with the land, and The Vultures documents that loss with both palpable sadness and productive anger.

Like in Briar Grace-Smith’s landmark play Purapurawhetū, the only ones in The Vultures who truly seem to understand what’s going on are the young, Kiwi and Te Rāwhitiroa. Kiwi’s driven to action against her scheming elders, but it’s Te Rā, the champion gymnast motivated by his desire for a ‘simpler life’ free of all this business, who leaves us with one of the show’s most ferocious and poetic images. He reads Struggle Without End through two scenes of arguing and scheming, barely moving from his spot. The Vultures is a satire - Purapurawhetū with a vicious sense of humour - but this one image makes clear that everything happening around Te Rā has happened before. It’s been happening for centuries. The only absurd thing is to deny it.

The Vultures runs at
BATS Theatre, Wellington
from Wednesday 8 to Saturday 18 June

For tickets and more information, go here.

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