New Zealand facing its colonial past is inspiring

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MONDAY morning in Edinburgh, and through a haze of jet-lag, I’m recalling the theatre shows I saw during a brief week-long visit to New Zealand, half a world and 12,000 miles away, writes Joyce McMillan.

They say that when Sir Laurence Olivier first arrived in New Zealand, he remarked that it seemed a long way to travel to arrive in Scotland; and there’s certainly a resemblance, in this pair of green islands stretching south towards the Antarctic, with a population just a little smaller than Scotland’s, and a landscape dotted with Scottish place-names. For obvious reasons, New Zealand will play its part in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival reflection on the Commonwealth; and the country’s familiar-sounding new arts agency, Creative New Zealand, is also hoping to support a strong presence on this year’s Fringe.

Yet just as New Zealand’s green landscape reveals, on closer inspection, a texture and plant life completely unfamiliar to Scottish eyes, so its culture has its own unique atmosphere. The theatre we see – both at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington and in a series of showcases for visiting programmers – covers a wide range of themes and styles, from a zombie-horror event called Apocalypse Z, to a glorious, circus-like 360-degree theatre experience about memory and loss.

Yet still, in many of the shows we see, the same theme resurfaces; the story of New Zealand’s colonisation by European settlers, of their encounter with the Maori people, and of the gradual forging of a new nation which tries to give full weight to New Zealand’s identity as a south sea island, linked by geography, culture, and migration to the South Pacific and its peoples; many of the artists we meet are Samoan New Zealanders, the children of a major migration in the 1960s. The story is implicit in many of the dance pieces we see; and it reappears explicitly in two major New Zealand Festival shows, Stuart Hoar’s Pasefika at the Circa Theatre, and Briar Grace-Smith’s Paniora!, presented at the national museum, Te Papa.

And although neither of these plays is outstanding in itself, it’s impossible not to be moved by the sheer force of New Zealand’s effort to understand and acknowledge its colonial past. On our first morning we are invited to a powhiri, or traditional ceremony of welcome; ours takes place in the Marae or meeting hall at the top of the national museum, overlooking Wellington harbour. We sit facing the hosts, who are mainly museum staff. A Maori elder rises and makes a speech, in Maori, acknowledging our presence; and all the New Zealanders on the host’s side sing a Maori song of welcome, before we reply.

And what is striking is how all the white New Zealanders we encounter, in Te Papa and around the Festival, seem proud to celebrate New Zealand’s Maori heritage as part of themselves and their identity; Australian visitors say they are humbled and impressed by a relationship that has still barely begun in their own country. New Zealanders will talk about the relative ease of building relationships in a smaller community, and about New Zealand’s unusual modern history, founded on an 1840 treaty – the Treaty of Waitangi, between the British state and the Maori peoples – that has few equivalents in colonial history.

Whatever the reasons, though, it’s clear that New Zealand is still working on this process of self-knowledge and acknowledgment, in the arts and elsewhere. In some ways, it’s a process that’s not unfamiliar to Scots who have lived through our own years of cultural self-reinvention since the 1970s. 21st century New Zealand, though, is its own country, with its own story to tell; and if you watch carefully, around this year’s Festival and Fringe, then you should find that narrative emerging loud and clear, beautiful, searching, and unique.