Since it was first presented in New Zealand in 2007, Strange Resting Places has won numerous accolades both at home and overseas and become widely known as the little show with big heart. And understandably so. Amidst the tumult of the Second World War we are taken to Monte Casino, Italy, where the 28th Maori Battalion is at the epicentre of the action.
This is a story of two unlikely friends, one Maori serving King and country, the other an Italian deserter from fascism who is heading back to his wife and son. Both meet in a barn to salvage some tucker and it is in this make-shift continuously morphing site that we are offered a smorgasbord of stories.
The tales told highlight the new friendships formed between many of the Maori and local Italians, the tragedy that the nearby monastery was bombed when there were only civilians taking refuge within its walls and, on a fundamentally human level, the fact that language and culture are not limitations to our understanding of the world – rather they create spaces to build new relationships that relocate our perspective outside our often myopic vision.
Co-written by Rob Mokaraka and Paulo Rotondo, this heart-warming and often hilarious tale is replete with Italian coffee to begin with, plenty of songs in Maori, Italian and English, farmyard animal impersonations, the deliciously awkward moments of burgeoning love and, of course, aromas of garlic and rosemary to add a layer of sensory engagement. In this world guitars turn to guns, men become boys, and statue of the Virgin Mary has plenty to say …
It is a beautifully constructed, creative and engaging platform to bring home both the horror of war and the unexpected relationships that lasted long after the clouds of dust settled.
But it’s also brilliant for another reason. Strange Resting Places is an example of text that comes alive through strong performers – Rob Mokaraka, Barnie Duncan and Te Kohe Tuhaka – and is distinguished by its subversion of stereotypes and expectations.
This is not about providing a cultural showcase and giving an anthropology lesson with the war as a convenient backdrop; it is a show that humbly and powerfully challenges knowledge about the untold stories from the war, the involvement of Maori as part of a huge delegation of NZ soldiers fighting for the Allies and the unexpected friendships that are borne in times of crisis and need.
The show itself is a confident touring work and although all three actors have been involved in the production before, it is the first time they are all acting together which brings a fresh energy to the piece. The mastery of language, accents and human sound effects – ranging from the whirring of a plane propeller to an inconsolable baby Jesus – is accompanied by creative solutions that not only equip them to play multiple characters but also manifest some of the devastation inflicted by those so far above in the clouds they could never hear the screams below.
The transitions are smooth, shifting swiftly from the various vignettes that support the main narrative and, although some of the structural placing of each story can be slightly confusing (especially for a younger audience), the obvious talents of the three male actors and their gifted musical talents do make for a riveting production.
A highlight amongst the New Zealand season at Edinburgh and definitely a Fringe favourite.
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