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Delivering Things That Matter

Photo: Andi Crown Photgraphy
Photo: Lexi Clare.
Photo: Lexi Clare.
The Big Idea gets inside the mind of Anapela Polata’ivao ahead of a new direction in her remarkable career.


At the time plans were being drawn up for a new hospital in South Auckland to treat armed servicemen during World War II, half a world away, a young teenage girl Zosia Minc was fighting for survival in Auschwitz.  

The war ended before Middlemore opened in 1946 but miraculously, just four decades later, the son of Zosia, David Galler - an Intensive Care specialist - would go on to become a major force at New Zealand’s largest and busiest hospital.  

Award-winning director Anapela Polata’ivao brings the latest Auckland Theatre Company offering Things That Matter to the stage– David Galler’s memoir of the same title from his 25 years at Middlemore, adapted by playwright Gary Henderson into a work of fiction. 

Framed against Rafal Beckman’s (Ian Hughes) Polish Jewish upbringing in Wellington, parents Leon (Greg Johnson) and Roza Beckman (Donogh Rees) are the beating heart of Rafal’s story that plays out in the corridors of Middlemore Hospital.

I’m sitting in the Boardroom of ATC in Balmoral, Polata’ivao is at the end of a 12-hour day following rehearsal. We’re sharing war stories of our hospital experiences. 

“I just remember how difficult it was… ringing the bell and it was hours before anybody came,” she recalls those first hazy days after the birth of her eldest son Rocky (now a teenager) at Middlemore. 

We’re in agreement the 75-year-old hospital was definitely purpose-built, waging a constant war against the dire social outcomes among its demographic who make up some of the country’s most vulnerable communities, not to mention the current pandemic.

Anapela Polata’ivao holding court as she discusses Things That Matter. Photo: Lexi Clare.


“The moment you walk in, it’s tired and you’re looking at everyone just trying to do their best. Everyone’s had a guts full… but you have to dig further and that’s what this play is about - especially with the scenes between the Health Minister (and Rafal Beckman).” 

Middlemore - the Oliver amongst its peers – always pleading for more.  Polata’ivao, like many, acknowledges the unfairness in the policies failing to deliver for South Auckland. As a child who was born in Samoa, raised in Māngere, Ōtāhuhu and now living in Manurewa (or as my nephew says Rewa Hard), it’s that deep alofa (love) for this part of the world that’s been expressed with such bold sophistication in her craft.

Top of her game

Polata’ivao is an urban female overachiever: an actor, writer and director whose long line of impressive credits include directing Wild Dogs Under My Skirt for its New York season at the Soho Playhouse, co-director of the hugely successful and groundbreaking production company Kila Kokonut Krew alongside partner Vela Manusaute, her internationally acclaimed leading role in short film Night Shift and of course one half of the genius comedic heroines Pani and Pani, that beautifully captures the zeitgeist of contemporary Pasifika life in New Zealand. 

Things That Matter marks a new direction in her remarkable career. I paint the image of clinician and author David Galler, the ‘patron saint’ of Middlemore Hospital coming onto her home turf, his desire to understand the truths of South Auckland. And Polata’ivao, its beloved and celebrated daughter by taking the helm of Things That Matter, having to venture deep into the middle-class Pakeha world of ATC with the challenge of bringing a brand new play to life. 

There’s a slight pause before Polata’ivao looks back to me – and we break into spontaneous laughter - the effort to respond at this late hour, an almost impossible feat. 

In Sunday School she was curious, Polata’ivao starts. Her first reaction to being handed a script as a young girl revealed a glimmer of the path ahead.  

She wasn’t just focused on learning her lines, instead Polata’ivao discovered a natural intrigue around the motivations of human behaviour.  “I discovered this curiosity… I wanted to know why people do the things they do. I remember looking at the script thinking, what would the character do and going against what I’d been taught.”

It was an approach that at times landed her in trouble but this period also laid the deep foundations for developing the galuega (work) that would come. 

Anapela Polata’ivao holding court as she discusses Things That Matter. Photo: Lexi Clare.

Polata’ivao remembers having way less in the way of material wealth growing up but realises an abundance of love was a constant, that both she and her younger brother Rocky enjoyed.
“When I look back now, Mum and Dad could see this joyful child who loved performing.”
Against all odds of being raised in a community where expectation demands securing a job once you’re able to as a vital support for intergenerational and extended family: Polata’ivao ended up with not one, but two parents, fully prepared to nurture her creative career.   

“For whatever reason, neither way was right or wrong… all they saw was this kid so joyful, doing the things that made her happy and - as corny as it sounds - there was so much joy in this girl, they just let me be,” she declares, smashing one of the many myths about life in South Auckland.  

Fostering talent

She went on to join the Maidment Youth Theatre while at Ōtāhuhu College, afterward taking a deep dive into the industry before studying at Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School in Wellington.  

“I took a very different path, I was the only one who went the other way but it’s very much our normal,” referring to the incredible Pasifika art scene that’s taken root and flourished in Aotearoa New Zealand.  

The many strands of Polata’ivao’s exceptional talent - direction, writing, as well as her brilliance playing comedy, while being equally adept at plumbing the depths of drama; the young girl, who all those years ago played up at Sunday School, has become a leading light in the New Zealand arts scene.   

Things that Matter cast.

When the curtain goes up, Things That Matter will embody Polata’ivao’s unique approach, utilising a much-needed insider/outsider lens to reimagine the political landscape of Middlemore, humanising its statistics and health professionals, laying bare its complex bones and bringing into sharp focus the ties that bind a community together. 


NOTE: The latest COVID Lockdown has caused the postponement of this show from its August dates - check Auckland Theatre Company for rescheduled performances when confirmed.