Strange Resting Places

Part of Border Crossings’ Origins Festival of First Nations, featuring the London debuts of four plays from New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the USA, Strange Resting Places is set in World War II, telling the stories of the Maori Batallion in Italy in 1943 and 1944. Although from a culture with little resonance to European society, the Maori soldiers found themselves drawn to the lives of the Italian soldiers and civilians they encountered.

Rob Mokaranka and Paolo Rotondo have created an absolute gem of a play, and their acting of the many roles, including soldiers, women young and old, pigs, chickens and goats, is phenomenal. Joined on the sparse set by Maaka Pohatu, they sing, use their guitars to represent guns, fight, drink and share their lives, while an American bomber continues on its way to bomb the Abbey at Monte Cassino where Italian civilians have taken shelter.

The action fits perfectly into the modern space at the Soho, and the cast make excellent use of props pulled from a series of ammunition boxes to create a desolate world of war, where the Maori soldiers have to cope with casual racism on top of the fear of war. Although the audience is aware from the beginning that this story can only end in tragedy, the play is largely wrapped up in humour and song – until the last few minutes.

At the outset, the audience is welcomed by the cast and offered food to share as the action starts. This has a generally positive, involving effect, though the subsequent moments of direct audience engagement which take place over the course of the evening are jarring.

There are also a couple of longueurs, where the writers indulge the humour just a little too much, and a spot where the action stops rather awkwardly, but Leo Gene Peters’ direction is otherwise fast-paced and keeps the humour flowing, right up to the final horror of the bombing, which is sensitively and expressively realised.

This is a sharply written, well-observed, funny and sad piece of theatre, which shines a light on the little-known involvement of Maori soldiers in the Italian campaign.

– Carole Gordon