Arts Festival Review: Battalion
BattalionReviewed by Ethan Tucker
Te Rakau Hua o te Wao Tapu
Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt
7 March at 7.30pm, Hosanna Fellowship Hall, Cannons Creek
9 March at 7.30pm, Otaki School Hall, Otaki
A lively young cast and a good solid story are the building blocks of the stage presentation of Helen Pearse Otene’s play Battalion, which was written to keep alive the memory of 28 Maori Battalion, and to bring its story to school audiences around the country. Like Dave Armstrong’s World War I play King and Country, also in the Festival, Battalion follows young New Zealanders away from home, to the battlefields of Europe and back to Aotearoa.
The proudest martial tradition of 20th century Maori history can be traced back to the exploits of 28 Maori Battalion in World War II. Battalion aims to make the wartime story relevant to contemporary New Zealand youth, and to highlight the strong bonds between New Zealand and the people of Greece and Crete, who remain grateful for the sacrifice of foreigners from far afield who defended their lands against German invaders during World War II.
When the war breaks out, five young Maori boys from Tamariri sign up to fight as modern Maori warriors, eager to escape their sleepy ‘one-cow town’ and see the world. Naturally, most are under-age, particularly Jo Boy Matene, who has barely outgrown short pants. His elder brother Paora, the main protagonist, only goes along to make certain his brother keeps out of trouble, but also because going to the Big Smoke is probably his only chance “to finally talk to a girl I’m not bloody related to!”
Many years later, back in Tamariri, the now aged and hobbling Paora Matene hosts two stroppy teenage girls from the Big Smoke – descendants of one of his close friends. Georgia and Rimi rebel against their aged minder, but he soon manages to hook them into his stories of Greece and the Maori Battalion. It’s not long before they learn more than they ever expected to about the darkest night of Paora’s war, in an olive grove on Crete, when he lost his beloved brother.
Granted, there are few surprises in the script, but the quality of the cast (some as young as 13) polishes the performance nicely. Aside from the talented singing and dancing, there are also liberal sprinklings of wit throughout the play. The cast must’ve enjoyed singing their hymn to good honest wartime boozing: “She’s bitter and brown, and she’ll always go down…”
From its stylish opening scene, with white-clad boys strewn about the stage, and black-gowned “Greek” chorus of Maori girls singing beautifully, to the final medley of well-known Maori songs, and the contemporary urban dance routines, the cast and crew of Battalion put on a show with a sense of professionalism that belies their tender years. While written for school audiences, the play successfully translates to the ‘grown-up’ environment of the Arts Festival, and will doubtless continue to spread the story of the Maori Battalion to a new generation of New Zealanders.