Sydney Festival Theatre Review: ‘Black Ties’ is a warm exploration of Indigenous and Maori relations

The wedding comedy is common shorthand through which to explore culture. Those from different traditions are forced to navigate a new frontier, negotiate new sets of terms and decide what parts are most important. Black Ties sees this culture clash cleverly told between an Indigenous and Maori family, highlighting both the similarities and stark differences between the two communities.

Kane (Mark Coles Smith) and Hare (Tuakoi Ohia) are in love in Sydney, getting engaged under some awkward circumstances, not least due to Hare’s insistence they finally meet each other’s families before deciding to lock it in. The couple travel to Melbourne to meet Kane’s family and then Aotearoa to meet Hare’s, oddly bringing Kane’s best mate Jermaine (Dion Williams) along for the trip.

What follows is standard family rom-com fare, albeit within the framework of Kane and Hera’s cultural heritage and ties to country. While initially sweet, both mothers (Lisa Maza and Lana Garland) insist their children come home to continue traditions on ancestral turf, somewhat suspicious and jealous of the opposing culture. Hare’s mother (Garland) does not approve of her marrying a non-Maori. This brings some interesting layers – the idea of being on country as part of a fight for sovereignty, bitterness that Aeotearoa’s First Nations people formed a treaty with its government as well as the loss of children as a sting of the Stolen Generation. A comic moment between Kane and Hera’s father (Taniui Tukiwaho) speaks volumes on the perceptions and ongoing relationships of both county’s indigenous peoples.

Jacob Nash’s set design is slick, relying on a large screen with videos representing each place and some snappy graphics of video calls and text conversations. However, while imbued with a natural warmth, the direction is a little messy. Many of the moments are weighted more for gags rather than underlying tension or character’s wants and performances don’t always meet each other at the same pitch. A few characters – including the tag-along Jermaine – seem to be there merely for comic relief. The addition of music is a wonderful way to bring all elements together, particularly when the cast and direction are humming nicely.

The second act does wow in its complete change in setting. Utilising the full space of the Sydney Town Hall, the audience is placed right into the wedding in real time allowing everyone to meet, mingle and share bread. While brilliantly staged, it lays bare the shows inherent weaknesses. Performances delve further into (seemingly improvised) ham, with little plot holding it all together. An ongoing bridesmaid’s vendetta between Kane’s sister (Dalria Williams) and Hare’s best friend (scene-stealing Brady Peeti) seems to come from nowhere and contain little dynamic tension, relying more on ‘oh no she didn’t’ humour than specific resolution. The use of live video is a great addition however alongside some technical issues isn’t executed to full effect.

In saying this, the ensemble cast tackles the script with gusto. Coles Smith and Ohia carry the show with aplomb, with Garland and Jack Charles as Kane’s uncle Mick bringing much of the gravitas. Being a world premiere, some further development could turn this into a tight and heartwarming cross-cultural exploration.

THREE STARS OUT OF FIVE

Black Ties plays until the 18th January. More information and tickets HERE.

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