Troop triumph

First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

November 12 – December 10

The stakes are high from the outset of Queensland Theatre’s blockbuster season closer “First Casualty”. This is not just because of the play’s grounding in reality as the debut work from serving soldier and veteran of Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Johnston CSC, but also because of its initial action which sees Sapper “Thommo” Ken (Reagan Mannix) faced with disarming an improvised explosive device.

The majority of the play’s action takes place over a couple of days in 2011, at the remote Combat Outpost Mirage in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. The tiny fortification is manned by four Australian soldiers Captain Trent Kelly (Mitchell Bourke), Corporal Nick “Woodsy” Woods (Will Bartolo); battle-hardened tour veteran Sergeant Jack Hunter (Steven Rooke) and the jovial Thommo, who has recently joined the group following the airlift of their previous injured sapper to Germany. The mountainous station is base for the group as they mentor a platoon from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in preparation for transition as part of Australia’s eventual withdrawal from the region, prepare to open a local school, deal with Taliban insurgents, negotiate with powerful local warlord Malim Khan (Amer Thabet) and navigate the everyday issues that come with living so far away from home.

Clearly there is a lot going on in Johnston’s acclaimed work, which was written to help bridge the cultural divide between military and civilian life. A crafted script reveals character and titbits of backstories without becoming too bogged down in this when there are more serious thematic focuses upon which to concentrate. Even so, under Leigh Lewis triumphant direction there are some quite Shakespearen moments of high drama. Indeed, there is a real grittiness to the intensity of the story aside from the ‘strategic realities’ shared by Brigadier Michaela Cain (an assured Christen O’Leary) en route to Afghanistan from Dubai, accompanied by members of the press corps (Kevin Spink and Adam Kay). Though these scenes take us out of the at-its-core soldier action, the information they provide in outline of the conflict and juxtaposition between its government PR and on-the-ground realities are pivotal in supporting audience understanding, engagement and appreciation.

Dialogue rings true throughout, not just in militaristic terms but also in mate-to-mate touch on emotional truths, as well as the grubby humour and immature banter between the soldiers, which provides levity ahead of the show’s later sombre scenes. It also allows for powerful illustration of the lads’ ability to move from frivolity to focus in an instant as gunfire and explosions occur. The contrast between soldier and government perceptions around the legacy of what is being left behind cresendos in an early Act Two razzle dazzle fully fledged musical number satire of the pomp and ceremony of public servant politics, tap dancing and all, when the Brigadier arrives via helicopter (in a fantastic sequenced dress uniform) to affirm that all is well, in the hearts and minds back home at least.

All members of the large cast also bring authenticity to their performances, revealing the strength and also vulnerabilities of their characters. Because of this, we believe that Bourke’s likeable Captain Kelly believes in the reconstruction efforts and understand that Rooke’s Sergeant Hunter’s distrust of the Afghan allies comes from the much-deeper accumulation of his past experiences as a seasoned military man.

In his Queensland Theatre debut, Reza Momenzada has the difficult job of playing interpreter Ali, caught between two groups, but also two worlds. He makes the complex character endearing in his collation of an Aussie vernacular list and negotiation for ration pack items, but also brings us back to the essential tension of his between-worlds role through viscerally physical reactions to moments of challenge. The only thing that takes us out of the show’s otherwise absorbing moments is the recognisable voicing by Christy O’Leary of Trent’s emotionally isolated wife Lucy, who appears in phone conversations with him in anticipation of his upcoming return home.

As impressive as performances are, however, the real star of “First Casualty” is Renee Mulder’s unique and incredible design, which is perhaps the best that Queensland Theatre has seen. The strikingly minimalist set conveys a sense of danger and allows for an action-packed story, despite there appearing to be little room to move on and around the stage set of multi-level boxes, and credit must go to Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton for his guide of performers through the space with an authentic sense of danger.

Scenes shift fluidly as Johnston guides the audience through the different abstracted spaces of his story, which are represented as a landscape of fractured memories of his own experiences. A series of screens line the walls, allowing for share of background images, media reports, calls from home and translated text (the play features Dari and Pashto languages, including consultancy by Arwin Arwin and Reza Momenzada and Masood Ehsan), with Craig Wilkinson’s video design easily taking us into the mountains and also beautiful valleys of the Afghanistan setting, where village goats roam around the place.

An epic soundscape and dynamic lighting are also integral players in the resound of the storytelling, taking us into the layered heart of a pre-interval burning bombed marketplace, for example. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transforms the space and its surfaces to tell the show’s many multifaced narratives, taking us from the intensity of Act One’s fiery finish to a palette shaded in shadowy blue. Sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS adds to the onstage action, from the birdsongs and alike of the natural surrounds of a scene, to the escalating sounds of warfare and a focussed heartbeat to hold the tension of a climatic confrontation between Trent and Mlim Khan, and again, is maybe the best even seen heard in a Queensland Theatre show, dynamic and also subtle as required, but always an integral component of the show’s storytelling success.

There is a reality also to the costume design of military uniforms, actions and alike. Ahead of the official start of rehearsals, the core cast went out on a three-day bootcamp with Australian veterans (including the playwright, and Matt Cardinaels CSM as a contributing artist as Military Consultant), which included weapons and other skills training to prepare them to accurately portray ADF soldiers on the stage, which they do.  

“First Casualty” is landmark world premiere production, quite unlike anything typically seen on stage.  This hard-hitting tale, may be an imagined account informed by authentic experience, but its impact is very real as it urges its audience to consider humans more than headlines. Provocative even in its title’s allusion to the adage that the first casualty when war comes is truth, it is still respectful of soldiers whose stories are at its core. The show does not necessarily answer questions, but it also does not preach as to a stance, rather allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions.

There are no new themes to “First Casualty”, or subject matter even, but in Queensland Theatre’s hands, its consideration or war and the human spirit is handled in a way that is unique in the honesty at the heart of its attempt to humanises the people behind the politics of war and offer insight into the soldier’s voice and experience, beyond the so-often pitied popular view.  As its playwright Christopher Johnston has himself has noted …”Afghanistan has become so contentious, and our conduct there so controversial, so political. I thought it was important to put a human face on the conflict, to tell the story of our soldiers in their own language; to honour them and their families; to understand the impact of our longest war.” And for that, theatregoers can certainly be thankful.

Photos – c/o Brett Boardman

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