Meremere – Christchurch Arts Festival 2019

On a stark, white set, a kuia enters and begins tonight's performance with a karanga, calling us on to this shared marae of sorts.

The white backdrops are arranged in a wide v shape with a small, central entranceway between two of them. As the performance progresses, a procession of fascinating visuals will play out on the white backdrops, but for now they are in dim light and a concentrated spotlight illuminates a tekoteko (carved figure) such as might adorn the archway of a whare whakairo (carved meeting house). 

Before he is seen, a voiceover by Rodney Bell narrates the introduction to his story. He tells how he returned to Aotearoa in 2015 and, after ten years away in America, he began the journey of reacquainting himself with his Māoritanga. The seed of this journey was planted when he decided to carve a meremere as a present for his cousin's 40th birthday. Rodney carved the meremere from a native hardwood and so it took him a long time, a time on which he reflected on his past and the people and events that had brought him to his present day.

Then Rodney came wheeling out at speed, almost like a revelation, from the central entranceway upstage. With a mixture of solo dancing, dancing with an empty wheelchair and speaking directly to the audience, he gave us poignant fragments of his life in America. He never revealed the mystery as to why he ended up homeless for the last three years of his sojourn in America, but he painted word pictures from his homeless experience. He told us of how he would sleep on a bench at Pier One in San Francisco and of how he established a rapport with a one-legged seagull he named Moana. He observed how Moana was disadvantaged in the daily food forage conducted by the other seagulls, but Moana adapted to compensate for this physical disadvantage. Rodney took inspiration from Moana as to how he too had to adapt to survive on the streets. The seagulls also made Rodney aware of the need for flight, flight home over the vast Pacific Ocean to Aotearoa. 

Throughout the production, there was clever use of lighting and visual images projected on to the backdrops to underline and illustrate Rodney's stories. He documented the highs and lows of his experience, but even the lows seemed transformed into positive, learning experiences by his ebullient personality. A solo show is a tough ask in theatre, but, albeit with a little help from Eden Mulholland creating the music and Bianca Hyslop dancing a duet with him, Rodney carried the performance effortlessly through his generous spirit which seemed to emanate from his every pore.

What might have been the low of trying nightly to get into a homeless shelter with more prospects looking for beds than there were beds, becomes the high of getting in one night with only one other person, a woman, after the police had arrested a crowd of homeless people in a fracas outside the shelter. The constant search for food becomes a celebratory tale of scoring the high-quality leftovers from well-off students on Berkeley campus with another street personality named Pink Cloud.

And through all the ups and downs, he relates the tale of receiving the Isadora Duncan Award for Dancing at a ceremony at Brava Theatre in the Mission District of San Francisco, a proud moment that uplifted him during a time of struggle.

The performance was captivating, but, if I have one minor quibble, it was that the bass in the accompanying music was too loud and overpowering. The Piano is a venue that has been specifically designed with acoustics in mind, especially for musical performances, but also for theatre. We were seated near the back and the walls and seating were shuddering from the bass frequencies. This is unnecessary and takes away from the enjoyment of the performance.

But, to end on a positive note, the boy from Te Kuiti in the King Country has come a long way on his journey and the audience came away richer for having shared his story and his experience and imagery as well as live music created by Eden Mulholland to create a piece of theatre that you will not want to miss.

Meremere (Thursday 1 August 7pm, Friday 2 August 1pm and 7pm, Saturday 3 August 7pm at The Piano)
Tickets $45 to $50 plus service fees

This compelling, award-winning piece shares the extraordinary survival story of critically-acclaimed integrated performer, Rodney Bell, Ngāti Maniapoto. Developed in collaboration with director Malia Johnston and Movement of the Human, Meremere layers documentary footage, interviews, movement and imagery into an extraordinary 54 minutes, which includes live music from the supremely talented, Eden Mulholland.

Christchurch Arts Festival 2019

The biennial Christchurch Arts Festival brings a mix of performances to Ōtautahi. The 2019 Festival highlights Christchurch creations. The 2019 Christchurch Arts Festival runs from Friday 26 July to Sunday 4 August. Browse the full festival programme to see all the events, concerts, activities, and exhibitions. Visit our page on the Christchurch Arts Festival for event previews, reports and more.