Review: Rēwena and Be Like Billy?- a rewarding double bill about reciprocity and those who came before

Erin Harrington reviews Rēwena and Be Like Billy?, staged as a double bill at The Court Theatre, Saturday 25 March 2023.  

The moving one woman play Rēwena, from award-winning author and playwright Whiti Hereaka (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Tuhourangi, Ngāti Tumatawera, Tainui, Pākehā) invites us into the private kitchen of hospitality pro Maggie, proprietor of wonderfully titled restaurant The Thymus of the Lambs. Maggie, dressed in classy linens, is going to teach us all how to make parāoa rēwena, a type of sourdough made with a fermented potato starter, sometimes reductively termed ‘Māori bread’. The cooking demonstration is a simple premise, albeit with the need for very careful organisation, production-wise, given ingredients and tidying, bugs and kneading. But bread is more than gluten and yeast; it’s life, and a reflection of aroha, with the taonga of shared knowledge a connection to our whānau and loved ones.

As Maggie settles us in and welcomes us to her space a subplot emerges: tonight it’s also the final episode of cooking show Baker’s Dozen and her sister’s texting up a storm about it. One of the finalists, Neil, was Maggie’s pint-sized baking protégé when he was a scrappy hungry kid next door, and it seems he’s not been very good about paying his dues. The hurt is clear; Maggie’s aroha and caregiving efforts over years have not been treated with the respect it deserves. This opens space for a careful consideration of reciprocity. What do we owe to those who have taught us? How we share, and show, our knowledge and love? I particularly appreciate seeing a show about a woman who doesn’t have children, who talks openly about the complexities of this, including what it means to love and care for the children of others. These narratives are rare out in the wild.

The production is directed with grace and sensitivity by Tania Gilchrist (Ngāti Porou). There is a careful ebb and flow to the action that feels gentle and natural, much like Maggie’s kneading. Kim Garrett (Tūhoe) does a beautiful job of portraying Maggie’s softness, sharp wit, and strength, all while dealing with dough that’s rapidly drying under the lights and a few technical hiccups that almost leave her marooned. Garrett is one of the warmest, most present performers around, and she takes good care of us. I would happily buy a ticket to watch her reading a wall of lorem ipsum, although I am a little curious as to why an older actor wasn’t cast.

The set is situated on the Court Theatre’s mainstage, behind the walls that will come to provide the backdrop for Be Like Billy?, with room for a few dozen audience members. It’s intimate, and I am glad to have sat at the front. Set designer Matt McCutcheon has created an impeccable kitchen set for us to share with Maggie, complete with running water and functioning oven. It’s both homely and modern, reflecting Maggie’s love of order and tradition, while responding carefully to some challenging production dynamics. Honestly, I have kitchen envy – those deep green tiles! That joinery, and those stainless steel benches! The smell of bread and seasoned pans soon fills the space, a rich cloud of hot butter, yeast and steam. Divine.

I am moved to tears in the play’s final moments, as Maggie reflects on how people might show love, and recognise that love in others. We are shown love too, as we leave, both in the form of rēwena to try, and in a hardcopy recipe to take home so that we can start our own tradition.


Less than an hour later we have the Court’s new commission Be Like Billy? The show is a colourful, high impact celebration of Māori showmanship, as well as an interrogation of what entertains us and why. It’s also a terrific vehicle for the exceptional skills of triple (or quadruple? quintuple?) threat Rutene Spooner (Ngāti Porou), who first enters down the aisle of the audience, wrapped in a big yellow duvet, his childhood self gobbling up Billy T James sketches on dubbed VHS tapes after dark. Billy is the man, he tells us – funny fulla, cheeky fulla, the only brown fulla on a TV full of white faces, and a legit inspiration. But our relationships with our heroes are complicated.

For 70 minutes and 14 musical numbers Spooner is joined by outstanding house band Te Kira Muttonbird – Clayton Hiku (Ngā Puhi), Heather Webb, Jack Bubb and superstar MD Henare Kaa (Ngāti Porou). Inventive instrumentation teases out comedy and pathos.  In the energetic opening, Spooner races around in one of many great sequinned blazers (care of designer Nephtalim Antoine) giving us a deft greatest hits of James-isms. There’s comic mispronunciations, Māori this and Caucasian that jokes, some song, some funnies, some story. We follow Spooner, cabaret style, on a trip from playing guitar at kura and garage jams, to performing on the stages of corporate gigs and international festivals. It’s ace – a fitting tribute to James’ work as well as the history of Māori showbands, beautifully shaped by director and long-time collaborator Holly Chappell-Eason, with support from Kaiāwhina Juanita Hepi (Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Wai, Moriori, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāpuhi). I appreciate the way McCutcheon’s set offers us a split between the public and the private: on the left, the band, black flooring, and a glittery silver backdrop; on the right, a more humble domestic space, cleverly fitted out with props and instruments, a little reminiscent of Maggie’s kitchen behind.

The show’s title is a question that gets asked of Spooner, and one that he asks himself. Billy T casts a long shadow, and not in entirely positive ways. Singer, actor, comedian, hero, the guy who waded through all the shit first, check. But anyone familiar with James’ comic personae knows that there’s a big fuzzy area between celebrating subversive comic specificities and trading in stereotypes, especially when those stereotypes can be used to diminish a people. The yellow towel becomes a type of straitjacket. Comedy is serious business in part because it is so slippery. To wit: I recently binged a great deal of James’ comedy for a work thing, and was disturbed by how many of his clips were hosted on racist ‘Pakeha Party’-type facebook pages that celebrated the work that traded on the most negative of sterotypes as ‘good old NZ comedy’ from a time when you ‘actually could tell it like it is’. This is less about the division between punching up or down than it is about asking: is the joke, its telling, and its reception mana-enhancing?

Spooner lays out this complexity for us in a show that starts with joy and celebration, with nostalgia, then pivots to something more complex when the audience is confronted with the division between laughing at and laughing with. What happens when the thing you love and that inspired you, that reflected something vital back to you, is also used to belittle you or place your work in a tiny little brown box? How can we celebrate Māori showmanship in a manner that acknowledges the vitality of Māori performance histories without playing an essentialist card that frames Māori as ‘natural’ entertainers? And so on. The show would have benefited from more time and workshopping to smooth out this arc, but it’s impactful. As Spooner reveals some deep wounds a woman near me weeps openly. The final musical numbers, written by Spooner, are triumphant; concert lighting flashes and the band smashes it out. My companion and I think it’s spectacular.

Those audience members who recently attended The Māori Sidesteps at the Court will find common ground here, especially in the playfulness with Māori performance traditions, although Spooner is ultimately much more direct in his challenge to the audience. Those audience members who were fortunate enough to see Spooner’s earlier solo show Super Hugh Man (2019-20), about another one of his heroes, Hugh Jackman, will find this show especially rich. A wero: if you want the artist, you also get the person.


I admit that when the 2023 programme was launched I was very excited to see that Rēwena and Be Like Billy were being staged, but apprehensive that they were being co-programmed. It’s a somewhat unusual choice for the Court, and begs the question how they relate to one another and why co-location is important.  In practice, the two shows sit in fruitful conversation, and it’s highly rewarding watching them together. One is feminine and domestic, the other an extroverted celebration of tāne Māori performers and vulnerability. One places us right within the action, the other asks us to act and think as a traditional audience. Both are about relationships and reciprocity, about whānau, and about weighing up what is handed down to us. There’s a fascinating spatial dynamic at play. In practical terms I don’t know if this has doubled or split the work done by production staff, spread costs or halved resourcing across shows, if this co-location better supports a smaller piece within a larger one, if there’s safety in numbers, twice the tickets – whatever, that’s getting inside baseball. There’s also work needed to ensure there’s enough time to transition between the shows. On opening night Rēwena runs maybe 30 minutes past its 50-minute run time, knocking back Billy, even though it doesn’t feel long at the time.

But my key concern was more to do with arts ecologies, and a little like the double face of Billy T James, where contradictory impulses can be true at the same time. Does co-programming two excellent Māori works, Māori stories, headed by Māori performers celebrate Māori theatre excellence? Yes. Might that also inadvertently put these works into a box within the year’s programming?  A trickier question that I haven’t quite resolved in my head. The reasons this sat in my brain is because, if we put the recent excellent season of The Māori Sidesteps to one side as it was a touring production, I am pretty sure that these are the first in house Māori-led mainstage productions for adults to be staged since a revival of Hone Kouka’s drama Waiora: Te Ū Kai Pō (The Homeland) in 2016, and The Biggest, a comedy about Māori and Pākehā men going fishing written by Jamie McCaskill, in 2017. Please tell me if I am wrong, but that’s ages. [ETA: I was wrong – Albert Belz’s Astroman premiered at the Court in 2018.] Until this week more in-house Māori work (and very good work!) has gone out to children or schools (who deserve it!), or onto auxiliary fringe stages like The Forge (when it has operated), than to mainstage subscribers.

This means that the Court programming these shows, and commissioning Be Like Billy?, is something to be strongly applauded, and I really don’t mean to hassle current staff for the decisions of past programmers. But I hope that this historic absence is also something to be remedied in an ongoing fashion, as a relationship, because this absence does not reflect a lack of available talent or creative vision. We have Katie Wolfe’s The Haka Party Incident to look forward to on the mainstage later this year, and that’s a very good thing. Money talks, process talks, time talks, visibility talks and resourcing talks. It’s not greedy to ask for more, please.

The two shows run until 22 April 2023.

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