Here come the Kiwis: New Zealand culture at the Fringe

New Zealand takes up the Maori war cry, or haka, as it flexes its post-colonial muscles in Edinburgh this year. Joyce McMillan headed to the South Pacific for a preview

black grace
[Black Grace dance company]

EVEN IN a world long grown used to long-haul jet travel, the journey to New Zealand remains almost in a class of its own. The plane – with its whole fuselage painted in images from Peter Jackson’s
blockbusting Lord Of The Rings film series – flies for 11 hours to Los Angeles, and pauses briefly while we all have our US transit visas stamped. Then it flies again, for a solid 12 hours, south-westward across the Pacific, over the international date line and the equator, only to arrive, on a cloudy Sunday morning, in a green place famous for its superficial resemblance to the UK, and above all to Scotland – a country that has both roughly the same population as New Zealand, four to five million, and a similar love for its own wild landscapes.

If the historic links between Scotland and New Zealand are strong, though, the truth is that ever since the mid-19th century, New Zealand has been on a long journey away from the idea that it is some kind of Britain of the southern seas, and towards its own powerful identity as a Pacific nation. And if you want a vivid, wide-ranging and revealing glimpse of where New Zealand’s post-colonial culture stands now – still mid-journey, still evolving at impressive speed – then Edinburgh is the place to be this August. New Zealand’s arts agency, Creative New Zealand, together with partners from the British Council to Assembly Productions, has seized this moment of interest in everything to do with the Commonwealth and is sponsoring a huge range of New Zealand artists and performers to showcase their work on the Edinburgh Fringe, in the hope of finding an ever-wider international audience for a story that is both unique and full of global resonances.


The work ranges from the children’s show Duck, Death And The Tulip–playing at Summerhall – to the live immersive Zombie-movie experience The Generation Of Z, staged in the container yard at Assembly in George Square.

It’s perhaps appropriate, though, that the great centrepiece of the season – at the Assembly Hall on the Mound – is the show simply called Haka, a celebration of the most famous and yet least understood aspect of New Zealand’s Maori culture, reflected in the famous pre-match war-cry of the All Blacks rugby team. Performed by 25 artists from two of New Zealand’s leading haka companies, this show explores the depth and subtlety of this ancient Maori tradition of dance and movement, and uses it to tell the story of the famous Maori Battalions who fought in the Second World War. And Hakais not the only show in the season to reflect on the powerful movement and voice traditions of the Pacific, and their complex relationship with New Zealand culture. The acclaimed choreographer Neil Ieremia, for example, founded his Black Grace dance company in 1995 precisely because he felt that his own story, as a New Zealander from a Samoan family, was not being reflected in the dance culture around him; and his thrillingly choreographed Black Grace programme, at Assembly Roxy, reflects those tensions in culture and movement with terrific power and invention.

“My generation are the children of the big Samoan immigration that took place in the early 1960s,” says Ieremia. “My Dad came from Samoa on a teaching scholarship. So I was born here in New Zealand, I have a passport, but I still find it hard to feel that I belong. The idea of New Zealand at that time was very Engish, so I founded Black Grace because I wanted to be able to explain my Pacific Island heritage, and to explore that through dance.”

If the relationship between New Zealand and its Samoan minority is not always easy, though, it has become an impressive source of creative energy. The 2014 Edinburgh Fringe season also includes The Factory, New Zealand’s first-ever Pacific musical, billed as a “vibrant, funk-fuelled and entirely unique” exploration of the Samoan migrant experience; and the raw but explosively funny cabaret-style comedy Black Faggot, by New Zealand playwright Victor Rodger, which explores the unique range of problems facing gay men growing up in a Samoan community dominated by strong church influences, both Catholic and evangelical.

“The inspiration for this play came from a series of events in 2004,” says director Roy Ward, “when the pentecostal Destiny Church, which is very much rooted in the Samoan community, staged an Enough Is Enough march on parliament, protesting against gay rights.

“That really was an important moment for the Samoan community in New Zealand, and from then on people began to organise against that kind of intolerance, and to assert their right to be gay as much as Samoan. In a sense, we know we’re not saying anything new here about the the problems gay people have faced, particularly in communities with strong traditional religious beliefs. But it hasn’t been said in this voice before; and for New Zealand and Pacific culture, that’s very important.”

And if both the Maori community and the more recent Pacific Island migrants are finding an ever-stronger voice in New Zealand culture, then what’s striking is how completely a younger generation of New Zealanders from European backgrounds now adopting those cultures as part of their own identity.

On the surface, Arthur Meek’s monologue On The Upside Down Of The World is a classic Fringe solo show for a lady in Victorian dress, beautifully performed by the actress Laurel Devenie. Yet Meek is an award-winning young New Zealand playwright, born in Northern Ireland in 1981, a New Zealander since he was two, famous for a smash-hit comic play based on a book about the former New Zealand prime minister, called On The Conditions And Possibilities Of Helen Clark Taking Me As Her Young Lover. And in making a piece of theatre out of the 1884 memoir Our Maoris, by Lady Mary Ann Martin, Meek sets about challenging entrenched assumptions about New Zealand’s 19th-century colonial experience, in a way that mirrors many of the themes seen elsewhere in the season.

black faggot
[Black Faggot]

“When I first found the book,” says Meek, “I was expecting embarrassing anecdotes, and couthy scenes of human contact across the racial divide, but instead I found this woman who seemed like a really cool person. She wasn’t the typical Victorian lady; she was disabled and couldn’t have her own children, she read a lot, she learned the Maori language as soon as she arrived in New Zealand, and her husband, who became New Zealand’s first chief justice, was very badly treated by the UK authorities, in the end, for his insistence on sticking to the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi, which gave the Maori people substantial land rights.

“So what you see in the play is the birth of this person who is not British any more. It’s about how a nation was built. And what the colonial experience left behind was this feeling among white New Zealanders that we don’t just want to be second-rate Brits. What are we? We are a Pacific country, the largest Pacific island. Increasingly, we’re coming to understand that; and it’s great to be part of a season in Edinburgh that expresses that change so powerfully, and in so many different voices.”

Duck, Death and The Tulip, Summerhall, until 24 August, 10am, more info
The Generation of Z, Assembly George Square, until 25 August, 9pm and 9:30pm, more info
Haka, Assembly Hall, until 23 August, 2pm, more info
Black Grace, Assembly Roxy, until 22 August, 7:20pm, more info
The Factory, Assembly Hall, until 25 August, 7:15pm, more info
Black Faggot, Assembly Roxy, until 25 August, 5:30pm, more info
On The Upside Down Of the World, Assembly Roxy, until 25 August, 1:15pm, more info

Originally published in The Scotsman

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