WORD Christchurch 2022: Te Piki o Tāwhaki

There's something about a library building.

In the hours after it closes to the public and in the minutes before it opens in the morning it becomes a different kind of space. Quiet. Church-like. It's the people who fill its aisles and stairways during the day that bring it its mauri, the buzz and the hum of life.

Last night during Te Piki o Tāwhaki, our central library, Tūranga, became something else again. It turns out that if you take an empty library and add to it an audience, it becomes... a theatre.

An audience made of all ages found seats on three floors looking over and down the central staircase atrium - this is a space usually filled with light from the skylights in the roof but last night it was lit with an eerie blue light. From the ground floor staircase, Tāwhaki, a sculpture by Fayne Robinson, assisted by his nephew Caleb Robinson, looked out over proceedings.

The story of Tāwhaki has always been part of Tūranga but perhaps before now it has whispered its story into people's ears as they wander past - perhaps they'd barely even notice it? But for one night only Tūranga literally trumpeted this tale with pūtatara and pūkāea and a variety of other taonga pūoro providing an aural soundscape to the story.

Ariana Tikao - Te Piki o Tāwhaki performance
Ariana Tikao holds a pūtatara, Te Piki o Tāwhaki, Wednesday 31 August 2022.

There are many versions of Tāwhaki's story but this one is particular to Te Waipounamu and to artistic director, Juanita Hepi, who added elements of humour and pop culture references to the legend. Tāwhaki, we are told, is like Thor (not End Game Thor - more Ragnarok Thor) and the whole thing starts "long ago in a galaxy that we conveniently inhabit..." Because it doesn't matter whether your story is a thousand years old or originates in the mind of George Lucas, a hero's journey is a hero's journey, is a hero's journey, ne? Either way, "... it was a time without mobile phones..."

Another thing that we know is that when it comes to heroes, whakapapa is important (just ask Luke Skywalker, or Jon Snow) so that is where the story starts, with a woman named Whaitiri and a man named Kaitangata. They have a son named Hemā and later he has children of his own, one of whom is Tāwhaki.

There is drama. Prophecy. Magical disappearances and reappearances. And of course, a quest.

Taonga Pūoro - Te Piki o Tāwhaki performance
Taonga Pūoro - Te Piki o Tāwhaki performance, Tūranga. Wednesday 31 August 2022. File reference: IMG_8986, Photo by Donna Robertson.

During which I have an excellent view of musicians Mahina-Ina Kingi Kaui and Ariana Tikao, each on different floors, as they use a dazzling array of instruments, alternating sound and song, that punctuates the story. At times it's like watching a foley artist providing sound effects for a movie - some rattling here, some crunching there, and haunting, whistling wind.

Similarly the lighting changes at important moments with sudden flashes of lightning or a shift in colour. At times white feathers fall from the heavens, either floating gracefully or spinning in a downward spiral according to their whim, and a thick white rope dotted with lights is lowered as the characters of the story make their way upwards.

Corban Henare Te Aika as the narrator, makes his way up staircases as the story progresses.

What do we learn from Tāwhaki's story? For all tales, no matter how spectacular or otherworldy, must tell us something about ourselves, our lives, our hopes and our dreams.

  1. Always. Say. Your. Karakia.
  2. Do not trash talk your wife to your family.
  3. Always listen to your sister.

These are not bad lessons, I think.

The tale ends (for now) on an epic battle between Tamaiwaho and Tāwhaki, who is looking to avenge the death of his father. Lights flash. The stairways echo with the sound of kapa haka. It's something of a cliffhanger. No post-credit scene.

Perhaps, a sequel? I know I'd be keen for another installment in the Tāwhaki Theatric Universe (TTU™).

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