On the Upside Down of the World is a rich snapshot of colonial New Zealand based on the memoirs of Mary Ann Martin and skilfully brought to life by Laurel Devenie.
Dripping in privilege and upper class ignorance, the young, naive wife of the first Chief Justice of New Zealand arrives in the country with the instruction to ‘civilise’ the indigenous people. Full of such colonial sentiments as ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’ to describe the Maori people, the work deals skillfully and sensitively with the nineteenth century tensions between European settlers and indigenous New Zealanders.
The piece also explores motherhood, and the inseparable bond between a mother and child regardless of blood relation, detailing Mary’s gradual journey from arranged wife to the adoptive mother of the Maori boy Sancho who is all but dumped on her front doorstep by his own father.
At first Mary is disdainful of the ‘savages’, disgusted by their dirty skin and fishy smell. But as she learns more about the Maori culture, she gracefully rejects the colonialist views that would have usually accompanied a woman of her class.
Throughout this moving tale there are moments of deep emotion interspersed by lighthearted comedy, all expertly executed by Devenie. She crafts the story carefully, effortlessly skipping between well-spoken high-class English lady and guttural, consonant Te Reo, the Maori language.
The set, though jarringly modern with its structures of metal ladders, is neat and minimalist, and Devenie’s frequent use of them as props adds colour. Underscoring the whole thing is a score for solo cello by John Gibson, played by Mollie Anne McWhirter, which punctuates scene changes with jaunty melodies and adds another dimension to scenes of panic and danger with emotive lines.
Showing as part of a programme of works from New Zealand, On the Upside Down of the World is an interesting look at the history of the country from the point of view of a woman who became willing to work with the indigenous people, not against them.
On the Upside Down of the World plays at Assembly Roxy on 12 – 25 August 2014 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For tickets and more information see the Edinburgh Fringe website.