This play will make you laugh – and challenge you – at the same time

by Vomle Springford / 29 April, 2019
Jason Te Kare, director and star of Cellfish. Photo/Supplied.

Jason Te Kare, director and star of Cellfish. Photo/Supplied.

Cellfish, a dark comedy play touring New Zealand this June, asks people to confront a system that is failing Māori.

What makes a criminal? Are you really that different from someone in Paremoremo?

Director Jason Te Kare poses these questions in the play Cellfish, to help people better understand a serious issue in New Zealand: Why Māori people are over-represented in prison.

The play, which is touring New Zealand after a sell-out season in Auckland, is based on Shakespeare Behind Bars, a real rehabilitation method used in the U.S which had massive success in reducing reoffending. In Cellfish, a fiercely determined woman, played by Carrie Green (Bless the Child), goes into a New Zealand men’s prison to teach inmates Shakespeare.

Created by Miriama McDowell (Waru), Rob Mokoraka (Shot Bro) and Te Kare (I, George Nepia), it was born out of frustration with state systems and the repetition of negative statistics about Māori in the news, says Te Kare.

“It began with a kaupapa around the systems that fail Māori and it just so happened within the prison system there are many who have been failed by the different systems – mental health to social welfare, family services... so many of the services that are supposed to be helping Māori are in fact failing them.”

“At the moment all we’re doing is saying 'they’re bad people, let’s lock them away'. It’s an old, old system.”

Te Kare says it’s clear rehabilitation programmes, like Shakespeare Behind Bars, are more effective than traditional punishment but it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around – the play shakes up this notion.

“Especially emotionally for victims of crime, you feel they [offenders] need to be punished for what they have done, but at the end of the day, is that going to make our society better or worse when they get out? Because inevitably they get out.”

“There’s so many myths about good guys and bad guys, and it’s easier to push people away and say ‘that’s not me’. The thing we’re really trying to do is bring what they [the audience] think is far away from them and bring it close to them, and make them see themselves, or parts of themselves, within these men.”

Many of the inmate characters are familiar to Te Kare – his mother ran a halfway house in Glen Innes for kids who got caught up in state systems.

“I’ve got a real personal connection to these characters because they remind me a lot of those kids I grew up with in our house.”

He says people will be surprised at what they laugh at in Cellfish.

“Yes, it’s about these deep, major issues, but it’s a good night out, it’s a good laugh, it’s good soul food. You laugh, you care, you feel frustrated, you see another side to people, our society.”

At the same time, it delivers a punch, says Te Kare.

“You’ve got to find a way to deliver messages that makes people listen and not just shut off."

He credits Taika Waititi for opening up this style of comedy.

"When you look at Two Cars, One Night, it’s really easy to see it as just kids mucking around in a car park but when you look at the deeper undertones of three kids waiting for their parents at the pub in the car... that has never overpowered the comedy.”

“The whole time through the play we balance that quite finely, there’s a lot of humour, a lot of laughter, a lot of good times but it’s always on a knife edge, there’s always a moment of danger so you’re never fully free of that moment.”

Just two people – Te Kare and Green – play all the characters, adding to the complexity of the play.

"So the changing from character to character is done physically through the actors’ abilities. That's what I call the magic of theatre, when you can create this whole world just using two people, some lights, some sound."

Cellfish, presented by Taki Rua in partnership with T.O.A – Theatre of Auckland, is showing in Wellington, Christchurch, New Plymouth, Hamilton, Whangarei, and Palmerston North, various dates between June 6-29. See here for tickets.


Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Underland
108287 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Books

Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Und…

by Tony Murrow

In a new book, Robert Macfarlane heads underground to ponder mankind’s effect on the planet.

Read more
Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for frying
108203 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for…

by Jennifer Bowden

For decades, the word in the kitchen has been that olive oil shouldn’t be used for frying, but new research could change that.

Read more
Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours
108108 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours

by Linda Herrick

Gretchen Albrecht paintings may be intangible, but they are triggered by real-life experience, she tells Linda Herrick.

Read more
That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a punch
108435 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Television

That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a pun…

by Diana Wichtel

The taboo-busting doco is trying to change our default settings on race, but some people aren't stoked.

Read more
Are there too many tourists in NZ?
108444 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Are there too many tourists in NZ?

by North & South

Here's what's inside North and South's August 2019 issue.

Read more
Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more
The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace
108368 2019-07-15 00:00:00Z Movies

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing…

by Russell Baillie

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Read more
The untold history of China's one child policy
108182 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z History

The untold history of China's one child policy

by RNZ

Nanfu Wang explains the story behind her film One Child Nation, which screens at the International Film Festival this July.

Read more