Downstage Theatre
March 16-21 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

Strange Resting Places is a great name for this play, but it might just as well be called Strange Bedfellows. When a young Mãori soldier and an Italian are trapped together in a barn in Monte Cassino in 1944 with Germans outside, they really are the ‘salami in the panini’ and they must try to surmount their language and cultural differences to survive.

The three actors all deliver superb performances morphing between characters with seamless ease. Whether they are playing a selection of farmyard animals, statues that come to life, bomber pilots, wives and daughters of the soldiers, or the soldiers themselves, they invest the characters with credible idiosyncrasies.

Rob Mokaraka may have the most expressive eyebrows on stage, and Paolo Rotondo is a master of physical theatre. Maaka Pohatu slips on a dress, and when the laughter dies down, he is incredibly nimble and nothing at all like a pantomime dame. In fact, the scene where he swaps knock, knock jokes with the Virgin Mary and then prays to her is surprisingly affecting. At eighty minutes running time the play is packed with emotional moments, from intense stand-offs to comedy mime and tear-jerking love stories.

Despite the different languages (and much of the Mãori and Italian remains untranslated), the gestures and tone allow the characters to understand each other, although they stumble over cultural diversity – such as what to do with a sheep. The Mãori soldier wants to eat it; the Italian to milk it to make pecorino cheese. They mock each other’s different approach, and question each other’s culture in ways that might be considered offensive in another setting.

The language of love, flirtation and music is universal. Sadly so is that of hunger and violence. The guitars which the actors strummed so beautifully moments before become threatening weapons as they symbolise guns. A poi becomes a propeller on a fighter plane, and clouds of scented talc are destructive bombs which drift out towards the audience. This could be a universal tale of devastation and miscommunication, but the placards with dates and names anchor us in a particular time and place.

We know that the monastery was bombed and that civilians were killed, so when the Italian tells us his wife and young son are sheltering there, we know it can only end in disaster. Whatever your faith (or lack of) there is something truly terrible about destroying a place of worship, and we are reminded that there are many needless deaths in war.

But Strange Resting Places ends on a high note, as we are invited to share wine and break bread dipped in garlic and rosemary infused cooking oil – which was prepared earlier. We are brought back into the fold and this is a communal event in many ways.