Plays, Poems & New Writing Story

Speaking across time and culture: a Māori Troilus and Cressida

  Read an extract from former Artistic Director, Dominic Dromgoole’s, new book Astonish Me! which recounts the Māori performance of Troilus and Cressida as part of our Globe to Globe Festival in 2012

6 minute read

Astonish Me! is full of major events from cultural history, moments which sucked the air in from around themselves, and breathed out a new air infected with a fresh understanding of what it was to be human.  There are great stories – The Rite of Spring, the unveiling of Michelangelo’s David, the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest – tales of adventure and legends of triumphs against the odds.  Cheekily, I have sneaked a few of my own experiences in. Not because I think I have been involved with anything so seismic, but because a little direct practical experience can throw light on how performers and artists feel at these moments of high stress.

One chapter deals with our Globe to Globe Festival in 2012, a celebration of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 different languages from theatre companies around the world, which opened with New Zealand’s Ngakau Toa production of Troilus and Cressida, performed in Māori. Read an extract from Astonish Me! uncovering the nervousness around first night below…

A group of Maori actors stand on the Globe stage, performing a play. They are watched by an audience in front of the stage.

The Māori company, NgaKau Toa, perform Troilus and Cressida as part of our Globe to Globe Festival, 2012. Photographer: Simon Annand

Our old friend, Rawiri Paratene, is a great actor and an elder of the Māori tribe. From the moment we conceived the festival, we wanted him and his community to be involved. Rawiri is a blast of laughter and energy and cheek, but, a couple of days before, he had sent a sombre email. He asked us to assemble a group of our Globe community, the elders as he called them, on the stage to greet his company. He had proscribed a few simple things to occur, though none of us were prepared for what happened. Gathered on the stage, we waited for a given moment, when the doors were pulled open. Outside was a company of twenty-five Māori, gathered together scrum-tight, a thick block of humanity, babies and grandparents amongst them. All were trembling visibly, their bodies shaking and their eyes flickering here and there. I invited them to come in to the space, and, when they all felt comfortable, they shuffled as a group into the theatre, led by a young actor, his baby over his shoulder, keening an unearthly cry. Still shaking and still alert, they looked like they were entering an alien village and braced for violence. Exceptionally wary to the spirits of the place, they were ready to attack or flee.

‘I had been asked to make a speech of welcome on behalf of the ghosts of the Globe.’

I had been asked to make a speech of welcome on behalf of the ghosts of the Globe. I still wake up in the middle of the night cringing with embarrassment at the things I said that afternoon and their synthetic inauthenticity. But the address proved sufficient for them to climb onto the stage at my further invitation. Still braced for violence, in silence they arranged themselves in three ranks, and we corresponded, facing them. On an instant, as one, they erupted into a haka, the Māori war dance. I had witnessed these on television at rugby matches, but the feeling of facing one down, and on an intimate stage, is unearthly. Breath and blood, the heart and the head, all the biology we forget, suddenly becomes actual and crucial within one’s body in response to the rawness of the haka’s physicality. With eyes popping, and every muscle in their bodies definite in purpose and deadly in power, and with the group elevating each other above the individual to a different realm, it is hard on witnessing it simply to stand one’s ground.

At its conclusion, their elder, a formidable man with a bald and conical head, launched into the most possessed rant I have ever witnessed, a large chunk of it inches away from my face. Red-faced, eyes bulging and skin tingling, it was impossible to know how to respond beyond a level stare. I had no idea what he was saying, but felt like I was getting the most almighty telling-off for all my sins. He then went to the centre of the room, let out an unearthly yell, and, on a breath, said: ‘Well, that’s enough of that bollocks. Great to see ya.’ Then with laughter, and cheek, they came to us; we all put our foreheads to theirs, and rubbed noses in greeting. The Māori, as we are now seeing in the ascendancy of Taika Waititi, have an amazing capacity to take what matters seriously and find themselves ridiculous at the same time. They have a large-souled humour.

One actor raises an eyebrow comically at another actor, whilst holding a spear.

‘They have a large-souled humour.’ Photographer: Simon Annand

We weren’t sure what they had said; I’m still not. We knew the blessing they brought from the other side of the world was a gift we didn’t know we needed, until, with some theatricality, it was given. They were following a proscribed pattern of their own, bound together with ritualised actions and modes of behaviour. In each moment their engagement was so compelling we entered wholly into their reality. Just as in a play.

Those of us still capable of neurosis (most of us) worried that this splendid beginning might be a chimera to be followed by a crash landing. We were concerned the first show may have set the bar a little high. Such doubts were dispersed when the Māori company, NgaKau Toa, swept onto the stage with their bruised masculinity, and their visceral tribal take on Troilus and Cressida. Their bodies were almost naked, their buttocks painted with swirling green Pacific patterning, their eyes popping and their feet stamping so hard, it was as if they were trying to pound their way through the earth back to New Zealand.

An actor stands at the front of the Globe stage, whilst other actors fight behind them.

‘Doubts were dispersed when the Māori company, NgaKau Toa, swept onto the stage…’ Photographer: Simon Annand

For Rawiri, having grown up in a school system which banned the use of his own language, and having pursued a lifetime of activism to resurrect Māori speaking, this was a moment of huge significance. The rest of the company shared his passion. To return to London, the capital of their original oppressor, and to lay claim to London’s poet in his own theatrical space, in their words, and to do so with supple command and witty authority, was a measure of deliverance.

A further ceremony, and another surprise one, took the still young festival to new heights. The show ended, the audience went wild, and the curtain call erupted into the articulate yell of another haka from the company. The blood was thrilled afresh, and then the audience had a fright. At the back of the yard, where 600 people stand for every show, about sixty New Zealanders, many of them Māori, had discreetly positioned themselves in several lines. As the actors finished their haka, this section of the audience suddenly shrieked back at the stage, threw their coats and jackets to the floor, and hunkered down, pounding out a combative rhythm on the yard floor. At first the audience were terrified, thinking there was about to be an almighty rumble, then thrilled. This was a haka-off, a to-and-fro of battle cries. Two groups of mammoth Māori rehearsing an old war rite in Southwark. No-one had expected it: no-one could have dreamt of anything better.

‘This was a haka-off, a to-and-fro of battle cries.’ Photographer: Simon Annand

Standing up in the upper gallery, I had a bird’s eye view of the whole event, the stage, the shout-back and the audience in between and all around. At the conclusion everyone went crazy with the delirium of the event, unsure how to decipher it beyond gawping at each other and saying ‘Wow!’ I watched the babbling audience filtering out of the theatre and saw one group left alone in the middle. It was the hearing-impaired company, Deafinitely, as excited as anyone by what they had seen, signing their insights and excitement to each other, in silent exuberance. It was beautiful.

‘Hello’, I thought, ‘we may be on to something here’.


Astonish Me! First Nights That Changed the World by Dominic Dromgoole is published by Profile Books and available to purchase from