On the Upside-Down of the World

Went with Ukraine Girl to on Wednesday to see Arthur Meek’s On the Upside-Down of the World.

The first things that strikes you is the set. There are around 40 tall ladders on stage. And somehow they are not leaning against anything, making you wonder what keeps them up. Eventually you work out they are bolted to each other, so they are like a big frame. My mind did start recalling college physics and wondering how much weight would be needed on which ladder to make the whole thing collapse!

While the ladders were not an integral part of the play, for me they worked. It allowed Laurel Devenie’s character of Mary Ann Martin to emphasise her pleasure or distress as she went up or down the ladders.

So who is Mary Ann Martin, and why is there a play about her? She came to New Zealand at the age of 25 in 1842, following her husband William Martin who came out in 1841 to be the first Chief Justice of New Zealand. In fact at the time, the only Justice of New Zealand.

The play has a strongly political theme, as did Martin’s actual life. When she first came to New Zealand she saw Maori as savages to be converted to Christianity and became well regarded by many Maori due to the hospital she set up. But over time the friendly relations with Maori frayed and eventually severed, with the focal point in the play being the son of a Maori chief she fostered as her own.

The land wars of the 1860s severed the Martins not just from Maoridom, but also from most of their European friends, as they though the actions of the then Government was unjust and provocative.

Now some may read this and think the play is just a politically correct rewriting of history which portrays Maori as all good, and settlers as all bad. It doesn’t. The play is based on the actual history of that period, and primarily the book “Our Maoris” written by Mary Ann Martin. It is worth reflecting that the actions of the Government in the 1860s was judged harshly not just by today’s standards, but at the time by the first Chief Justice and his wife.  If you want a short summary of the Taranaki war, Wikipedia has one.

But despite the political overtone, this was not a play about Maori v Pakeha. It was a play about one woman, and her journey. A sole actor play is always a challenge, but I have to say Laurel Devenie not just rose to the challenge, but mastered it. Her performance was so outstanding that she got a rare standing ovation from most of the audience. That’s the first play I’ve attended in some years where that has happened.

The back story to the play is interesting:

She called her book Our Maoris, which today seems a patronising and anachronistic title.

But as director Colin McColl points out, language is fluid and when Lady Martin used the term it was with affection and respect.

Now she has made the journey from book to stage courtesy of playwright/actor Arthur Meek who found a copy of Our Maoris at a second-hand bookstall a couple of summers back.

Meek says its provocative title coupled with its cover picture of “the most depressed looking kuia ever” meant he had to buy it. He expected it would be a dry and possibly depressing read, but instead he found an uplifting story which revealed one of the great pioneers of our colonial history.

Arthur Meek succeeded in turning the book into a play which is equally uplifting.