by Laura Ferguson
The lights darken to pitch black. Silence. The lights come on and the distressed parents of a missing son wait while the titular Anahera sit centre stage, silent. Liz Hunter, the mother, sits turned away. The father, Peter Hunter, paces ferociously across the the stage. The pervasive silence continues. The house lights tick loudly as they cool down, adding to the distress of the situation. It somehow makes the silence louder.
Anahera is a story based around a well-to-do, middle-class family. Liz and Peter Hunter, played by Jacqueline Nairn and Neill Rea respectively, are waiting for news about their son, Harry who has been missing for 12 hours. A clever bit of nominative determinism in their last names. They are hunting for the whereabouts of their son, and perhaps needing to hunt for other, less tangible things. Anahera (Neenah Dekkers-Reihana) is their young social worker, and this is her first solo case. Already, the empathy shines out of her face, her openness and willingness to help is plain. From the beginning, Nekkers-Reihana shows an incredible ability for acting in micro-reactions, the smallest flinches visible as the Hunters’ barbed racist remarks hit Anahera.
Kinane’s story sneaks me into these people’s lives, and I experience it from Anahera’s point of view. The police find their missing son, Harry and while this should be the start of a happy ending, it is only the beginning of the darker undercurrent.The panic sets in Anahera’s face, her eyes dart, her mouth slack as she sees Liz and Peter no longer anxious and frightened for their child. Harry is now an annoyance, a disruption to their day. There is no relief or joyous tears. There will be no one to greet Harry when he gets home, Peter and Liz have better, more important things to do.
The parents’ actions are brutal and shocking. My thoughts are screaming at me in light of what I’m seeing: How can they be so callous? So uncaring? What the hell is wrong with them? The flashes of future scenes interspersed throughout the play show this behaviour leaving long, indelible marks on Harry and his sister Imogen. Of course, we only get to meet these characters in their adult forms, played by Simon Leary and Susie Berry. As children, they are invisible; they ‘don’t matter’ therefore cannot take on a material form.
As the second half begins, the manipulation and internalised racism continue. The hatreds of New Zealand beaconing out like Sauron’s eye at Barad-dûr. I feel sickened by the stereotyping of Māori and Pasifika cultures and words being used as ammunition against Anahera, trying to break her. The superiority complex of ‘but we’re not like them, those low-life’s, those criminals’ makes me cringe and squirm in my seat. The abuse and ill-treatment of Anahera, indicative of what Peter and Liz’s children endure, is made more evident by the adult sequences. The children are now grown-up but still broken. Harry, in particular, is unable to care for his own kids they way he yearns to. It is absolutely heart-wrenching to watch.
The acting becomes more chilling as I get to see more of how Harry and Imogen were affected by their parents’ abuse. Juxtaposed against Jacqueline Nairn’s amazingly commanding and frightening intimidation on stage, it is lovely to see Simon Leary and Susie Berry’s performances of sweet and loving siblings. It is a return to how family is supposed to act, the care coming through just as much as the resentment and anger. The latter emotions are all dealt with explosive force on stage, particularly from Simon Leary and Neill Rea. I am discomforted by the emotion they pack into these moments: the anxiety-ridden twist of a beer bottle from the adult Harry as he struggles to look his mother in the eye. The roaring anger of Peter as he finally sees his life as Anahera does, then seeing his tortured anguish when Anahera’s words leave his own mouth. These moments seem so private, I feel I am an interloper here.
The character, Anahera, must feel the same discomfort at these times. Neenah Dekkers-Reihana’s portrayal of the heroine is genuine and touching. Her arc is one of struggle and desperation: she is desperate to help, desperate to make Peter and Liz see, to understand what they are doing. I love that Anahera stays on stage during the future scenes. Her actions in the dominant timeline resound through the other characters lives, changing them forever. Dekkers-Reihana’s talent is astounding, and the complexity of compassion and determination warring with her fear and sadness does wonders with the character.
The end comes. Kinane leaves it messy and inconclusive. This decision is necessary and makes Anahera more poignant. New Zealand faces issues like domestic abuse and racism daily, and there’s no way to tie it all up in one nice white ribbon. Too many people are affected, the influences cataclysmically descending through the generations and sometimes it is just too late.
I feel sad and reflective as I leave the theatre. I ponder: What can I do to help? What can make things better? The message that words are as powerful as actions echoes through into the struggles we face today. Modern society not only wages its wars on battlefields, but in comment sections. Casualties still occur, but the damage is invisible like young Harry and Imogen are to me in the play. I know I won’t be able to stop thinking about Anahera for a long time, perhaps forever, as if I’m not the same person I was two hours ago.
I text my mum and dad and thank them for being such great parents and caring people. Getting home, I wake my partner up and sob. They hug me and say ‘It’s OK, I’m here for you.” I sob harder, it’s something Anahera wanted us to take away, as long as someone cares, takes a stand, tries to make a difference, maybe, just maybe, it will be OK.
Anahera is playing at Circa Theatre until Saturday 7 October. You can book tickets through the Circa Theatre website.