A WELL FLUNG SHURIKEN
Vincent in the Rehearsal Room
1. IN THE BEGINNING
It was in 1983 that I received a call from the then Writing Fellow at Victoria University, Vincent O’Sullivan, informing me – somewhat casually, and after an appropriate preamble – that he had written a play; something about a massacre of Japanese soldiers in New Zealand; a bit controversial, still a bit ‘hush-hush’ (the diffident tone was lifting and his excitement peeping through); would I like to see it? If so he could come over. Now, that is if…..
I agreed that Now was as good a time as any.
I confess I was intrigued. I had met Vincent years earlier when I directed When the Bough Breaks, a play by his friend Alistair Campbell, as part of Downstage’s Gulbenkian series. Vincent did not seem to recall this meeting but greeted me warmly as a new colleague. I knew his work as a poet – I had enjoyed his Butcher poems – and was intrigued that he, like Alistair before him, was now branching out into drama, though he may have written plays earlier.
Like many theatre directors, I have a weakness for new plays. There is always the hope that one will encounter a stunningly original work. One thinks of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1955 – both of which, controversial in their own time, helped define their epoch. Let us also recall that the 1970s and 80s were a time when New Zealand drama was experiencing an explosive evolution of its own with many new playwrights emerging, and established writers turning to the theatre because of its immediacy and impact. The audiences were there, and hungry for New Zealand plays reflecting the rapidly changing reality of the country.
And so, some minutes later, there he was, hair blown about in the Wellington wind reminding me of the splendid photo of him by Robert Cross which used to hang in the English Dept at Victoria. He was clutching a manila folder containing the typed draft of a play called Shit Thursday – an unprepossessing title, I felt. But the story that it revealed was astonishing.
I, like many New Zealanders, had never known that there had once been a prisoner of war camp at Featherstone, and still less that there had been a massacre of Japanese prisoners there. It was suggested that the whole ‘incident’ had originally been hushed-up as a matter of military expediency – but the truth was now leaking out. Vincent had undertaken some research in preparation for an article for the Listener. As a result of interviews and studying newspaper reports and the lucky discovery of a note-book, he had built up a picture of what had happened. At 11.00am on Thursday 25th of February in 1943 (coincidentally, the very day upon which I am writing this memoir in 2007) a confrontation took place at the prisoner of war camp at Featherston in the Wairarapa. Within one minute 31 Japanese prisoners and one New Zealand guard lay dead. Other Japanese died later in hospital. It seemed that a machine gun was the weapon which did most damage.
Why had this happened? Who was involved? And why was so little known about this ‘incident‘ or ‘massacre‘? The use of these two terms shows the polarity of attitudes. There were, seemingly no clear answers to these big and important questions – the official documents were still classified – but, as Vincent assured me, the play would seek to address them.
I agreed (willingly) to read his text.
‘It’s just a first draft,’ he said almost apologetically. ‘It’s very rough.’
‘Just how I like them,’ I replied.
And it was rough.
I can not remember the details, but no doubt some scholar in the future will enjoy comparing the original (if it still exists) with the published text which reflects all the discoveries made in the rehearsal room; though I must emphasize that everything that arrived subsequently was there in potentia from the beginning. But I can recall that I was disappointed that the play was written in a more or less naturalistic manner and that this approach limited, I felt, the expression of some of the big themes. Naturalism can be a straight-jacket and I felt that there was a bigger, perhaps a madder, certainly a more ferocious play, just waiting, as it were, to break out.
At our next meeting, Vincent had already decided that the title was not apt, though he had not yet come up with an alternative. I suggested that, to counter any bias towards naturalism, he should let his poetic sense guide him in the structure of the work. This was uncannily close to the suggestion I had given to Alistair some years earlier. I was not asking for a poetic play as such, but for one which used wider theatrical means of expression, and in which the scenes progressed in a manner similar to the images of a poem. Vincent, like Alistair, knew exactly what I was talking about and I saw a sense of relief and excitement on his face. It is interesting to note that in the final production, it is the Kiwi soldier scenes which retain the naturalistic style (though not exclusively) and it is the Japanese scenes which have a more abstract, ritualistic quality.
Vincent’s knowledge of theatre is encyclopaedic, embracing the Greek classics (some of which he has translated), Shakespeare and the moderns. He is an ardent theatre goer, a man of letters, but above all, he is a professional word-smith and that was to prove a great asset when it came to the hurly-burly of the rehearsal room.
The conversation that ensued on the afternoon of our second meeting was wide ranging. We did not concentrate on the details of his play as such, but on issues of style and form. We talked about Japanese drama. We discussed the way the stage can become a platea, an open space defined only by the action that takes place there. We explored ways in which drama can present a clash of cultures through music and through the juxtaposition of different languages, through imagery and straight documentary. We looked at the ways scenes in a play can comment on one another, contrasting in a Brechtian way, to build a complex structure which yet remains clear and serious.
At some point in this discussion, I realized that I had crossed a certain bridge of commitment. I had rather fallen in love with the kind of play we were talking about, and so when Vince asked me point blank if I would take on the direction of the play, I replied ‘I do.’
Within the week Vincent was back with a reworked text, for he can write quickly under pressure, and as far as I was concerned, everything we had talked about was in the new work – including some bits in Japanese and a stage direction indicating that ‘At this point the shooting of the Japanese prisoners takes place.’ or words to that effect
‘But how will you stage the massacre at the end?’ he asked.
‘No idea,’ I replied. ‘No idea at all.’
2. CASTING THE PLAY
In retrospect I think Vince may have found the assembling of the cast to be the most harrowing among the varied experiences he was to undergo as we moved through the rehearsals to performance. Casting can be akin to an alchemical exercise in which one combines different actors in the hope, I suppose, of finding theatrical gold. But it is always a gamble. Certainly, Shuriken is the most difficult play I have ever had to cast but at the same time, the most satisfying. We had decided that the Japanese prisoners would be represented by 6 actors and that they would be present on stage during the entire action. They were, in effect, a Japanese chorus, but unlike the chorus in a Noh drama, they would participate physically in the action on stage.
I did not know one single Japanese actor in New Zealand, let alone six. We explored the idea of putting the actors in masks. But that, while it would identify the actors and was suitably theatrical, would limit them in many ways. And indeed, one of the strengths of the play is that the Japanese, while only one of them, Adachi, is actually named, cease very quickly to be anonymous beings but become very human, very fallible, somewhat sad and very dangerous both individually and collectively. I considered that with a careful use of make-up and control of posture and movement we could achieve both the passive-seeming, statue-still quality so characteristic of many Eastern faces in repose, while having the option to bring them vitally and dangerously alive when required. But where to find them?
It was Jim Moriarty – originally cast as Tai, the Maori soldier – who came up with the crucial suggestion. His idea was simple. ‘If you are looking for Japanese actors, Phil, go round the karate clubs. That‘s where you‘ll find them.’
This can be regarded as the first of the many ‘lucky accidents” which were to characterize the progress of this production. The only reason I was talking to Jim about the casting problem was because he had decided that he needed to withdraw from the play for personal reasons and, knowing that would cause difficulties, he wanted to help. But his suggestion certainly fired my imagination. Karate fighters with their superb physical control and discipline would give us a rare stylistic opportunity. I was thinking of the dazzling effects in Peking Opera when battles on stage erupt into colourful acrobatics. Vince went along with this idea, but he could have been excused for wondering what was happening to his play. But he kept his nerve.
So, a few days later, there were Vincent and I, knocking on the door of the VUW karate club and I can still recall the baffled look on the faces of the fighters, each in a white uniform with a brightly coloured belt, as we explained we were looking for Japanese actors for a new play. And it was here that we met Leo Donnelly who, despite his Irish sounding name, is half Japanese. Leo was then, and perhaps still is, a champion Karate fighter. He had fought and won at championships in Japan. His belt was black.
I remember being slightly un-nerved – and I wonder if Vince felt the same – as we spoke to him. He faced us very squarely, his arms relaxed and his weight balanced easily, but there was something of the coiled spring about him. He demonstrated some Karate moves: arms moving slowly like pistons; the breath sounding somewhere between a hiss and a growl; the face settling to a ferocious mask: this followed by a sudden, blinding explosion of action. How strange! How alien! How thrilling to be close to such energy! I think we asked him then and there if he could be in the play. He regretted, politely, that he could not join with us, much as the idea interested him, since unfortunately he would be overseas attending a Karate contest on the date the play would took place….but yes, he would help us, and he seemed to understand quite naturally what we wanted. But how sad, I thought, that we could not see Leo on stage, head shaved and poised for action.
Beyond that, we did not have much luck with Karate clubs We rather gave up on the idea of finding Japanese actors but other possibilities were emerging. Little by little, actors came forwards. Tim Bartlett, with whom I have often worked: ‘You want a Japanese, Phil? I can do a Japanese.’ Rick Loos from Holland: ‘I’ve not done much acting, but a lot of mime.’ Vinij Khureya from Indonesia: ‘I’ve not done any acting, but I can kick box.’ and Cliff Woods, a Theatre Corporate trained actor: ‘I love physical theatre. The harder the better.’ These actors became the nucleus of the Japanese prisoners. Their casting shows a distinct bias in favour of vigorous action.
Then, some weeks after our meeting, out of the blue, Leo rang me to say that due to changed circumstances he would NOT now be going to Japan and that he was therefore available to take part in the play… ‘If there is still a place available.’ He also added that there was also another young karate fighter who would like to take part, Soo How Koh. ‘He is not Japanese, but from Singapore. And he’s never done any acting, but he can fight.’
‘Welcome,’ I said. ‘Welcome.’ I could hardly believe our good fortune. We had our six Japanese soldiers… the fact that four of them had never acted before and that only one of them was part Japanese hardly seemed to matter. We had two very good actors in Cliff and Tim and they could do the character work. The four others, experts in the martial arts, could do the fighting. But we did not yet have an authentic Adachi, the leader and spokesman for the Japanese, and that was giving me sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, other developments were taking place. We were gradually assembling the Kiwi soldiers. Colin McColl was intrigued by the play and agreed to play Tiny (Colin being quite tall, you understand). Tiny is the only soldier who has any skill in the Japanese language, and the only one who realizes the dangerous tension that is building in the camp. Roy Billing came down from Auckland to play Pom, the cocky, foul-mouthed, Japano-phobic soldier who yet at the end shows heroism. Desmond Kelly took the role of Jacko, a decent, dinkum Kiwi with an instinctive distrust of Authority. Chris Mills accepted the role of Ernie, the sensitive, thoughtful, troubled soldier who finally cracks under the strain and who carries the machine gun. Lewis Martin became the camp commander, crisply British and obsessed with the ‘real’ war in Europe. Mark Hadlow, who had military experience, became the Adjutant, the officer who had to take command as the situation in the camp became ominous. This was, I think, Mark’s first major stage role.
But we did not have a Tai, the Maori soldier. This role carried the additional burden of representing an entire cultural segment of Aotearoa. Thus two key roles – Adachi and Tai – were missing and yet they were pivotal to the success of the play.
Meanwhile the pace of events in the theatre was increasing. Apart from our own discussions, Vince and I had meetings with Anne Coombs, the set designer, and Stephen Blackburn who would design the lighting and supervise the technical work. Thus decisions were already being made about how the play would be presented to the public. This shift from theory to practice was a relief as it made the whole undertaking feel more real.
Over the weeks the play had evolved rapidly. It still told the story of the ’massacre’ and explored its causes, but it had become more emphatically an illustration of how cultures can clash and how dangerous situations can arise simply as a result of cultural ignorance. My conviction grew, and Vincent shared this, that the different cultures we were putting on stage had to have true representatives. Thus we could not have just any actors playing the roles of Tai and Adachi, no matter how good they were. Crucially, we had to have a Maori actor totally fluent in Maori, to play Tai and a Japanese actor who was steeped in his own culture to play Adachi. These roles had to have a reality which reached beyond the theatrical, a truth beyond verisimilitude. Looking back, I think we knew this intuitively, but neither Vince nor I realized just how deep and far reaching the impact of those actors would be. As it turned out, the actors who ended up playing these roles more or less found us.
Someone – it may have been Vincent – suggested that I look at a programme on television, in which there was a Maori teacher who had a fine presence and who was giving short introductory classes in Maori. I saw the programme, was impressed by the quality of the performance and immediately made enquiries as to how I could contact the presenter, Pou Temara. It transpired that he worked at Victoria University, in the Maori Studies Dept and that he was also the Kaumatua, no less. The next day Vince and I rang Maori Studies and arranged to meet Pou that afternoon. We presented the play and explained the cultural issues raised in the text and Pou listened to us thoughtfully. However, when pressed to see if he might be interested in performing the role of Tai, he pointed out that he was very busy with the television work and with university work… etc. We pressed and he finally agreed to look at the play and discus the matter with his wife.
And to cut a long story short, he finally agreed to ‘give it a go.’ Those are light and unassuming words which disguise the depth of commitment he brought to the play. If my memory serves, he arrived at the first rehearsal with his lines already memorized. Having served in the army, he knew how to wear a uniform and handle a gun. It was one of the interesting contrasts in the play to look at Pou, well-braced like a fighting man and with his boots polished, and at Colin, who made no attempt to conceal his dislike of the military and wore his uniform as though trying to resemble an un-made bed. But it was in the Maori language and in his knowledge of kawa, that Pou was to make his deepest contribution.
As regards Adachi. One day, when the casting of the play was complete except for that role, I received a call at the theatre to say that a Japanese man had arrived at the box office and was asking for me. At this time I had more or less given up on finding a Japanese actor and I assumed the caller was someone from the Japanese Embassy for they had often helped me by lending Noh masks and books on Bunraku etc. And indeed I had contacted them about the role but without success. However in the foyer I met a young man who bowed politely and then said that his name was Akira Kikuchi, that he worked as an usher in the cinema, that he had heard that we were looking for a Japanese actor and that although his English was not good and he had never acted before, he hoped he might be able to help.
I had some sense of a pattern emerging. So, we went upstairs to the main auditorium – Akira had never been to Downstage before – and held an audition. Vince was there and he was as intrigued as I by Akira’s quiet dignity and thoughtful solemnity.
However, the audition was a great disappointment. Try as I would, I could not get Akira to speak above a whisper. He looked perfect… but would I not be putting the entire play at risk if I were to cast him in the role of the Japanese leader? But then, there was something magical about the way that he said “I shall not a-go” with Japanese inflection. I had him read the crucial final speech that Adachi gives just before the massacre takes place. As a speech, it is a complete contrast to everything else in the play – to the brash rudeness of Pom, the smouldering intensity of Tai and to the violent energetic action of the other Japanese soldiers. Perhaps I am a gambling man. Whatever! I decided to take the risk, perhaps also having faith in my own ability to work with actors, but also responding to that small voice in my ear which said that it would work. In his own way, Akira’s stillness was as compellingly theatrical as Leo’s athletic presence or Pou‘s fierce gaze. And in a way, Adachi’s leadership is a moral force, akin if you like to Ghandi, and this depends on a quiet intensity rather than histrionics.
So that was that. I don’t think Vince was convinced. I am sure that Akira was very different to the lively Adachi of his imagination, and indeed Akira was different to the Adachi I had imagined. But, as with Pou, Akira was to prove highly effective – though he never did learn to speak loudly – and a mine of information on Japanese culture. Ultimately he influenced the style of the entire production.
With this role cast, all the main cultures present in the play now had their true representative. Somehow we had assembled a magnificent cast. In retrospect it all seems so easy – all these happy accidents. All we had to do now was put the play on. Both Vince and I were impatient to begin, though I still had no idea how to stage the final ‘massacre‘.
Since this was the first production of the play, we decided to adopt a workshop/rehearsal approach. In other circumstances, the play might have been explored via a ‘workshop’ before moving to a full production. But this was a luxury we could not afford.
Without digressing into the complicated situation facing Downstage at this time, suffice to say that we had a production date which would allow us just over four weeks rehearsal. That is not a lot of time to try out a new play, but it was that or nothing. Fortunately, all the professional actors were familiar and at ease with the workshop practice, while those for whom acting was a new experience simply accepted it. Vince was very keen that the rehearsals should be ‘exploratory’ and that he would have the chance both to re-write and to write ‘for the actors’. He also looked forward to hearing the actors’ suggestions in rehearsal. He was open to the idea of having new scenes emerge if the play seemed to need them – and sometimes this did happen. This openness of approach, which is also a mark of high professionalism, was one of the main factors which led to the play’s success. While there was no question that Vincent was the playwright, everyone from the graphic artist Peter Hollis right through to the technical staff, the designer and the actors, had a part in shaping the play. It was then, and remains so today, the most collaborative production I have ever worked on: and yet there was no special philosophy behind it except an openness and willingness to explore.
The rehearsals, when we finally got started, were fluid and creative, and as far as I was concerned, remarkably easy. To give but one example. I asked Leo Donnelly if he would choreograph the fight scenes and be the lead fighter. ‘A bit of a bully, a bit of a bad guy, OK?’ The only real direction I gave him was that the fights should seem as real as possible. I didn’t want the audience to see punches that missed by inches or thigh slapping etc. One might get away with such things in Hollywood, but here the audience were little more than a metre from the stage. And besides, I wanted the audience to feel they were in the presence of a real and dangerous brawl. It should look as though it might erupt off the stage, though, of course, it never would. Leo chose Soo How Koh, his karate comrade, to be his opponent. The other prisoners would be round the action, shouting encouragement like punters at a cock fight.
I think anyone who saw the production would agree that the fights did not look staged. They had a tiger-like intensity. From a dramatic point of view, this ensured – as Vince remarked to me in an aside – that no one could underestimate the threat the prisoners presented . ‘Bloody terrifying’ were his words, I think.
The Opening Scene.
Vince was concerned about the opening to the play. He felt that the situation in the PoW camp and indeed the whole war in the Pacific needed to be set in the context of 1943. Let us recall that in that year, the 2nd World War was in full spate in Europe, and the outcome still in doubt. Many New Zealanders who might well have preferred to stay home to protect the shores of their own country, were fighting the Axis forces in North Africa, Egypt and Italy, and there was justified fear that New Zealand itself might be invaded by the Japanese Imperial Army.
After some discussion, Vince suggested that we create a filmed newsreel presentation to set the mood and give some important facts. And so, once again, like two seasoned travelling salesmen with a script to peddle, we set out and this time visited the National Film Unit. We were looking for documentary footage of the war in the Pacific. At first were told that there was none available since someone else was making a film about the battles in the Coral Sea. We persisted, and I think this is just one of the several occasions when Vincent’s prestige as a writer stood us in good stead, for we were then told there were some scraps left, bits that the other film maker could not use or did not want. ‘Would those be of interest?’ Indeed they would. And indeed, they were scraps.
Not one of them was longer than ten seconds. There were shots of planes flying, and big guns firing, and of the Emperor Horohito on a horse, and of a kamikaze fighter gritting his teeth as he dived his plane towards an allied aircraft carrier. All the bits were on 16mm film.
Crucially, it was possible to edit these together, and Vince was able to compile a background commentary which said everything we needed to say. This text, arrived at by necessity, was subsequently recorded for us in true up-beat newsreel fashion by Bernard Kearns at his sonorous best. This became the opening of the play and the images were projected onto a large screen which filled most of the stage area. It worked astonishingly well, and provided a bridge into the stage action proper. We discovered that the projection screen was translucent, and this meant that as the newsreel was finishing, we could bring the stage lights up slowly and reveal the actors behind the screen. First to appear was Leo Donnelly: just his face as he slowly performed the karate movements. Then, progressively, the rest of the Japanese prisoners appeared, doing the same movements. They were in arrow formation, staring into the audience. Thus we could move from the booming optimism of the newsreel, to an image of real threat; to a confrontation with something quite alien and dangerous.
Though it was not initially intentional, this pattern of staging, with the prisoners acting in unison and in an arrow formation, became the key pattern used several time in the play and especially at the end when the massacre took place.
Building the Performances.
We were discovering the style of the production as we worked our way through the play. Every scene, and especially the transitions between scenes, offered a challenge and an opportunity. While the ‘workshop process’ proved efficient, we could not afford the luxury of leaving loose ends. Thus at the end of each rehearsal we usually had something very concrete to develop and knew what was needed to fill out a scene. True to his word, Vincent always wanted to know what the actors thought of the lines and took note of any difficulties or suggestions.
Thus, it became more or less standard practice for Vincent to arrive at a rehearsal with new or amended text, and the actors would note the changes and we would rehearse them straight away to cement them in. The distance in time between an idea being presented and it being introduced was very small. – usually no more than a day. This gave the rehearsals a great sense of momentum. Fortunately, most of the scenes in the play are short and have a clear action so they can be rehearsed quickly. Other scenes, such as the one in which the prisoners have got hold of a bible and Jacko is pressed to explain to them the meaning of the biblical phrase ‘Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you.’ required little, if any, reworking. The joy of the scene was in the irony, and in seeing the prisoners grapple with an alien idea such as offering kindness, understanding or even compassion, to an enemy. The final irony being that the prisoners were themselves threatened by this idea since it could undermine their military code.
The Monologues and the Language
One feature of the play which came into prominence during the rehearsals was the monologues. These began as scenes, but at some point in the rehearsal, they became direct address to the audience. Thus, almost like a classic soliloquy, the monologues gave us direct access to the mind, and hence nature, of the character speaking. They also allowed Vince to write for the rhythm and voice of the actor, and on all occasions this proved most effective
Pom’s soliloquy, for example, took the form of a crude shaggy-dog story about a corpse that sang ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ through its arse-hole. This, delivered while Pom is standing next to a dead prisoner.
Jacko’s monologue was his inspiring speech to the bewildered Japanese prisoners – in this case, by extension, the audience – on the basic rules of rugby. The Commander of the PoW Camp has suggested that the morale of the prisoners might be improved if they learned to play rugby, and it is Jacko’s task to teach them. After explaining to them that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at three o‘clock, they are, ‘going to learn to think like white men for thirty minutes each way,’ he goes on to give them an overview of the game. ‘The guts of the game is to beat the living shit out of the other side until only one of yous is still on your feet. That is what we call tactics. Because whether you lot like it or not, we are going to civilize you. Right? Right!‘ Whether this scene has any basis in reality I do not know, but its comic quality brought relief while still revealing the gulf in understanding that separated the two nations.
Ernie’s soliloquy is a sustained cry of pain and bewilderment. It is, in some ways, the most pivotal for it is Ernie who at the end of the play has control of the machine gun. He is holding a letter from his wife. She has, as the colloquial Jacko puts it, “shot through”. Ernie is devastated by the news and likens the occasion to when, as a boy, he innocently ate the meat from a calf he had adopted as a pet, one that he loved. From that moment on, as he says, he knew there was evil in the world. This soliloquy marks Ernie as a man to be watched, a man suffering in extremis, certainly not a man to be trusted with a machine gun.
However, it was Tai’s monologue which stunned the audience on the opening night.. Tai, the Maori soldier, is not present in the opening scenes. He has compassionate leave and has gone up country to be with his family. His brother-in-law, a pakeha, ‘a good bloke’ as he says, has been captured while serving in the armed forces. He has been executed by the Japanese. Tai’s sister is in extreme grief and just sits turning her ring on her finger. When Tai returns to the camp he is filled with both grief for a brother in law that he liked and anger at an enemy who has, in a way, wounded his sister. He would like to take revenge. Significantly, at the end, the machine gun is taken from him.
The first time Pou delivered this speech in the rehearsal room the emotional power was astonishing. All the actors were sitting and watching in silence, for Pou seemed to be living the part. That, of course, can be dangerous., but then he turned to me and said, in a somewhat matter of fact voice “Was that OK, Phil?”
‘Not bad,’ I said, ‘Not bad.’ But later I had a conversation with Pou about emotional involvement in acting and how one must always keep at least one foot on the ground. ‘No worries Phil. It is the same on the Marae.’ I was relieved to hear it, but I also suggested that when he felt the emotion rising in the speech, he should simply flow into Maori as that was Tai‘s (and Pou‘s) first language. Thus the emotional power would not be muted. Vince agreed, and I think that is the most fruitful bit of directing I have ever done. Now, when you read the text, the sections that you find in Maori are moments of high emotion.
Unbeknown to either Vincent or myself, Pou travelled up to the East Coast where he grew up, and sought the advice of some of the elders on an appropriate waiata tangi, a song of grief and mourning, which he could sing at the end of the speech. A song was found, and Pou arranged for the tapu to be lifted from it so that the song could be used in the play and in the published text. Tai’s monologue brings to an end the first half of the play and that song is a moment of extraordinary emotion. In some ways the song is ominous, proleptic of the killings to come; but it is also restorative or, to use a simpler word, holy.
Observing this speech, as I did so many times, I came to see that the whole of Shuriken can be considered a waiata tangi. The play also contains many individual waiata, from Tai’s lament, to the hymn ‘Abide with Me,’ to the concluding haiku by Basho. The theme of grief runs through the entire play, like a subterranean stream which occasionally breaks surface, nourishing and sustaining every aspect of the action. This is the deep poetic structure.
‘Hey Vince. We want to see what happens if we bring the ghost of the Japanese soldier, the one that commits suicide with wire, on stage. We’ll need him to give a speech to the audience about the Japanese military code of honour which led him to his honourable suicide.’
Vince watched the action up to the point where the actor playing the ghost would speak, and understood the implications. ‘OK. I’ll work on it tonight.’
Well the discussion was not quite like that, but pretty close.
By next day, the speech was written and the mask the spirit would wear (Noh style) was being made by Anne Coombes. The new scene fitted into the play easily, and took its place as a new kind of monologue.
Cliff Woods, who played the ghost, having slipped from the ranks of the prisoners, put on the mask and the gown of a Samurai warrior. He advanced onto the stage just as Roy Billing was departing after his ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ monologue. They passed on either side of the corpse, and Roy paused with a shiver as though caught by a sudden cold breeze. In its slowness of movement and restrained gestures, the scene had a quality reminiscent of Noh drama.
I can not remember at what point Vince suggested Shuriken as the title. However, it was an inspired choice. The shuriken is an 8 pointed steel star, each point arrow-sharp and with the blades honed to a razor edge.
I tried to buy one at a martial arts shop in Wellington and was immediately challenged to name my teacher. ‘I don’t have a teacher,’ I replied. ‘I just want to buy a shuriken.’
‘Sorry mate,’ the man behind the counter said, ‘They’re too dangerous to sell to just anyone.’ And that was that. But he did at least let me see one and handle it, and I could see what he meant. A shuriken is a lethal instrument. At the same time, it is a thing of beauty.
Later that day I returned to the theatre and told John Batty, the head of the scene-shop, what had happened. At that time I had no real idea how we might use the shuriken. I drew a picture and some fifteen minutes later John returned to the rehearsal room with five shurikens in his hand. They were smaller than the ones I had seen in he shop, but effective none the less. John has simply cut them from a sheet of mild steel and then sharpened them.
Thus began one of the most amusing chapters in the development of the ;play. Everyone wanted to throw a shuriken, and indeed it was very easy. That day, when Vince arrived at rehearsal, he found shurikens flitting across the rehearsal room at Blair St and sticking in the walls, the doors, the floor. Everyone had a favourite throwing technique. Leo maintained that in classical Japan, a shuriken would be hidden in the hair, from whence it could be cast with a deft flick of the wrist to sever the throat of one’s opponent. Others maintained that shurikens could be hidden in the belt and sent on their way with a swift back-handed throw. Mark Hadlow, who became the unofficial shuriken champion, maintained that the best and most deadly throw was the vertical cast – a cross between throwing a dart and a cricket ball.
Shurikens appear in one scene only. The scene begins with the prisoners chanting. They are in some kind of workshop and each prisoner is hammering something. Enter Ernie with his rifle on his shoulder. He moves through the prisoners, detached from them, and delivers his monologue about the dead calf to the audience. Then he turns and enters the scebe with the prisoners. The prisoners become quiet and one stands to attention while Ernie inspects him. The prisoner drops the object he has been making – it is a gleaming shuriken. Ernie picks it up. He has never seen anything like it and does not know what it is. “English star,” said one prisoner, holding up the shuriken he has been making. ‘Christmas star.’ echoes another, holding up his shuriken.
The religious minded Ernie smiles, thinking no doubt of Christmas trees and gleaming decorations. He hands the shuriken back to the prisoner with the words ‘Long wait till Christmas sport,’ and he turns to leave. As Ernie moves away, the prisoners withdraw to one side of the stage. As soon as Ernie is moving to the back of the stage, the prisoners, acting in unison, hurl the shurikens they have been making across the stage. They skim through the air like a shoal of silver fish, and strike and impale themselves in the flag of New Zealand. They remain there till the end of the play.
We subsequently heard that home-made shurikens, as well as nails, hammered flat and sharpened, were found on the bodies of some of the dead prisoners.
It may come as a strange admission, but right up to the moment of actually directing the massacre, I really had no idea how to do it. I recall stopping the rehearsal a bit early at exactly the point where the massacre was to occur on the grounds that we had done enough for one day and would finish the play on the morrow. I was buying time. Nor can I remember ever actually deciding what to do. The one thing I can recall is an image – it may have been a photograph or a statue – of a soldier, arms spread, legs buckling, at the moment of being shot. This led me to think of a series of still frames or tableaux, rather like old photographs, detailing the progression from the first bullet hitting the prisoners, to the last prisoner dying. Thus we would show the massacre, not as something that happened quickly, but in a slow and almost analytical way. It was the physical skills of the actors playing the prisoners that made this possible.
Stephen Blackburn composed a sound-scape of gunfire during which the actors would alternatively freeze and move, freeze and move.
Each frozen tableau, made stark by lighting, lasted about three seconds. Each movement between tableaux lasted about a second. And each movement was accompanied by screaming from the prisoners. At the end, when the firing stopped, there was just a heap of bodies, including the one New Zealander, Jacko, who is shot trying to stop the carnage. The result was the kind of image with which we are now sickeningly familiar on our TV screens from so many wars.
We rehearsed the scene two or three times, each time refining slightly the tableaux images. I wanted the tableaux to be held long enough – and three seconds is a long time – for the audience to be able to look deeply into the scene. In my mind it was a frozen moment in time. At this point in the play, the prisoners were no longer anonymous beings, but had become known to the audience as individuals, and liked even. Thus their killing took on a very personal quality.
I seem to remember Vince watching the scene closely, and then, when all was still, turning to me and nodding. He had been anxious, as was I, to see how the massacre would be staged. It was the climax. It was the ending. Almost the final image of the play. And the only words that now remained were Basho’s sad seventeen syllable commentary on the dreams of warriors.
4. THE OPENING NIGHT.
No matter how careful the preparations, the acid test of a production is always the opening night: and let no one ever pretend that bad dress rehearsal means a good opening. It just means more nerves. However, in this case I think we all believed we had something special in Shuriken and felt we were ready to offer it to the public. If I had the jitters, it was because I feared lest the projector might break down, or one of the new-comers get stage fright, or an errant shuriken go bouncing into the audience.
I actually quite enjoy the buzz of a first night audience, though I can never quite bring myself to sit in the auditorium. Vince, by comparison, has nerves of steel. On the Shuriken opening night, the buzz was quite different to normal. When I peeped into the auditorium I saw a number of Japanese were already present. There was also a large contingent of Maori and a scattering of older men, some with their wives, who sat staring round the auditorium as though uncertain why they were there. These were not your regular first-nighters or even.theatre-goers.
On impulse I sat down next to one of the older men. He said good evening and then asked me straight away if I had anything to do with the performance. “A bit,” I said, guardedly, for I knew that feelings regarding the production were running high and there had been quite a lot of opposition to the very idea of a play based on the Featherston ‘massacre‘ being performed. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Well I’d hoped to meet someone who had a hand in the play. You see I was one of the guards at the camp on the day it all happened. I heard the shooting and I helped clear up the mess afterwards. See, there’s quite a few of the old fellas here.’ And he started to point to some of the other men in the audience, and to wave to them.
This, let me say, was not the first time that eye-witnesses to the original event had come forward obviously keen to tell their story. Some two weeks earlier when we were having a drink in a nearby hotel after a rehearsal, a man came up and asked me the same question. When I said that Yes, I did know ‘a bit about the production,’ he said ‘Good. ‘cos I was one of the undertakers that laid out the bodies of the dead Japanese. They brought them over the Rumutakas in lorries and we laid them out in a warehouse on Kent Terrace.’
Returning to the guard in the auditorium, I tried desperately to remember what had been said in the programme notes. I think I muttered something about the play not being a documentary. ‘It is an imaginative investigation into the causes of the shooting. We’ve tried to keep to the basic facts, but we’re not pretending that this is what actually happened.’
‘Well good luck to you,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I’ll see you afterwards in the bar and I can tell you what I think.’
The play began – no problems with the projector – and the performances seemed to me to have a nice hard-edged quality. I was prowling in the shadows at the back of the auditorium. But it was a noisy audience too, responding verbally to moments in the action. There was one scene provoked special comment. In this Pom makes fun in an obscene way of a haka, totally unaware that Tai has entered the hut behind him and is staring at him murderously.
Then we came to Tai’s monologue, and Pou pulled out all the stops. A dialogue in Maori ensued between him and some members of the audience who were evidently responding to the words of grief. Then he sang, the waiata tangi and some of the Maori members of the audience stood out of respect for the dead.
The final part of the play, after the singing of ‘Abide With Me‘, moves quickly. I was anxious to see how the ‘massacre’ was received and was quite surprised when some people turned away as the tableaux of the bodies falling were revealed.
The gunfire ended, and the echoes faded to silence.
Then after a moment’s pause while the New Zealand soldiers made their way back on stage from the auditorium, there came the plaintive notes of the Last Post. It was a special recording. Mark Hadlow had informed me some days earlier that he played the bugle and wondered if he might be able to play it live on stage. I thought this was a great idea, but sadly, we were not able to get him off stage in sufficient time for him to warm the instrument. The compromise was that Mark made a special recording for us in, I think, the Wellington cathedral where the resonance was perfect. I recall the notes shimmered like gold.
And as the Last Post was played, one by one the dead bodies came alive and stood up, facing the audience where they had fallen. When the last notes had faded, Akira spoke the haiku which Colin McColl, as Tiny, translated.
Behold the summer grass.
All that remains of the dreams of warriors.
Then, one slow bow and the actors moved off stage.
How interesting. How strange. When the lights came up no one moved, but there were many people crying. Not the old soldiers, they looked grim in the way that some men do when remembering painful things. Then I saw a Japanese man stand and turn to the man behind him – Maori? Pakeha? I do not recall. They shook hands in a formal way, and then, as though that gesture released something deeper, they embraced.
I guess at some point there was applause for the actors, for the playwright, for everyone, but I really can not remember.
This has been an extraordinary excursion down memory lane. While writing I have been aware that memory is closer to imagination than a documentary photograph. I am very sure that others, recalling the same events will see them very differently. But hey, when push comes to shove, there is no final objective truth, just a shuffling of perspectives.
My old tutor, Stephen Joseph, once defined the theatre as ‘a passionate affair between the actor and the audience.’ Professor Don McKenzie once declared that ‘the playwrights are the great innovators in the theatre.’ I recalled their comments often when working on Shuriken for the play exemplified the truths they had perceived. For me, the main thing I now recall, and that I most wish to celebrate and honour, is the memory of a wonderful collaboration. It took place on all levels: from the performers and technical staff who engaged so deeply with the development of the play and gave their energy unstintingly, to the audiences who responded warmly and generously as the story unfolded.
On a purely personal level, I celebrate the delight I found in working with Vince whose good humour, quick inspiration, wit, generosity and faith that all would be well on the night, never wavered. And I celebrate his play Shuriken, for it taught me so much and carried me to the limit of my understanding.