Relived Like

As You Like It (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

April 15 – May 13

William Shakespeare’s light-hearted comedy “As You Like It” is one of the playwright’s most regarded pastoral plays. Before we get to the simple forest life of Queensland Theatre’s lively production, however, we are first opened to its treacherous duchy court, for all the world is, of course, a stage.

The story is of Rosalind (Emma Wright), the only daughter of a banished senator, who is similarly sent into the forest by a Duchess (Helen Cassidy) because of her friendship with the Duchess’s daughter Celia (Courtney Cavallaro). Rosalind does this disguised as a boy, fleeing court to the forest home of other exiled fugitives, including the chivalrous Orlando (Andrew Hearle), to eventually find a way to bring all the plot’s love stories to realisation by the play’s end.

Adapting a Shakespearean play that has been performed so many times to still bring something new and interesting is no easy task and acclaimed Shakespearean director Damien Ryan’s attention to detail ensures that this “As You Like It” is one of engaging rural revelry in its focus of the romance between Orlando and Rosalind and their obstacle-ridden road to happiness. Motifs of other comedies abound as the story twists and turns its way through complications of love, lust and mistaken identity through masquerade. Indeed, Ryan finds the text’s accessibility through its comedy, embracing the farce and using pop culture nods sparingly and thus to good effect.

Although fast paced in its story, it’s a long show in its realisation, with a three hour running time befitting its enormity in terms of plot and characters. It’s a complicated and thus challenging text to follow in its need for doubling and tripling of roles, and while there is a knowing lean into this in the final joyful celebration of its four marriages, the change of actors across roles is initially confusing in some scenes.  

This, along with the density of such a lengthy, makes the work of all performers especially strong. Wright’s Rosalind represents a refined balance between humour and heart that immediately warms her character to the audience, and her natural chemistry with Hearle’s Orlando enhances our investment in her story as she transforms from girlish nativity to a womanly strength that allows her to transform the lives of others, as well as herself. The banter between Roslind and her best friend, cousin Celia is another highlight, in its tenderness as much as its back and forth tease. After literally throwing herself into her initial portrayal of the prudent sidekick of sorts, Cavallaro easily embodies the strong-willed and easily-offended shepherdess Phebe, feistily rejecting young shepherd Silvus (Davis Dingle), even though he is passionately in love with her.

It is appropriate that for a play that arguably challenges patriarchal values by disrupting the stereotypical differences between masculine and feminine, that casting is gender blind. Cassidy’s Duchess (rather than the usual Duke Frederick), has a regal assuredness to her demeanour, in stark contrast to her later doubling as dull-witted goat-girl Audrey who falls in love with cynical court jester Touchstone. Even with Audrey’s more ocker vocal sounds, Shakespeare’s words are always crisp in her mouth, which helps the audience in attempt to follow along with events. Similarly, this production’s female fool, still holds the audience in her comic hands. As the clever and witty Touchstone, Hannah Raven takes us back to the bawdy groundling interactions of The Globe days with an engaging performance of never-waning energy and perfect comic timing.

The standout moments, however, come from Andrew Buchanan as the melancholic, contemplative Jacques, an exiled former nobleman now living in the forest. His delivery of the play’s iconic ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue respectfully guides us through the seven stage of man both physically and verbally so that it resonates despite the tyranny of time from when it was first penned. It is a magical moment of captivated audience absorption that results in an opening night outburst of some applause as he entertains his camp mates with explanation of his philosophy on the proverbial threescore years and ten of an average human life.

Some spectacular moments also come courtesy of the show’s many creatives. Emma White’s set and costume design capture the contrasts of the court and forest settings in emphasis also of the story’s conflicts between culture and nature, and duty and love, with the sharp carnival stripe attire of the Duchess and her court jester being transitioned to the country attire of foresters. David Murray’s lighting design, meanwhile, warms us to the trials and tribulations of exiled life in the sparser experience of the desert Forest of Arden.

Music plays an integral role in this “As You Like It”, which adds an extra, though interwoven, layer to the production. Original music, composed by Music Director Alec Steedman and performed on stage by the cast and musicians, adds a medieval texture and captures the spirit of the comedy in folly-filled numbers such as that which stirs us into interval. While harmonised ensemble numbers such as this work well, however, at times it is difficult to hear individual singers over the music’s sounds.

There is also a compelling visual aesthetic, especially as the painted tapestry scrim screen backdrop to the Royal Court scenes is dropped to dramatically reveal the spectacular staging of the forest, complete with curved gradient drop from backdrop to stage proper. This allows for some memorable imagery, such as Colin Smith’s perch upon a rock from which to establish the pastoral mode of the play as opposed to the painted pomp of the court, as Duke Senior, the kind and fair-minded rightful ruler of the dukedom.

The play operates on many levels, not just literally, but also figuratively, which is reflected in the detailed staging touches of Orlando’s poetic words of praise for Rosalind, which are hung from the trees of the forest where Rosalind and Celia find them. This not only fulfils narrative purposes, but allows for emphasis on the elaborate use of language through allusion and wordplay that help its storytelling resonate across time and space.

Queensland Theatre’s “As You Like It’ embraces the spirit of Shakespeare’s play and is, therefore, particularly appropriately timed to have its opening week coincide with World Shakespeare Day. While its journey might be a lengthy one in which some of the narrative’s intricacies remain obscure, its take is as fresh as ever in its exploration of liberty and love of the pastoral type. The result is a boisterously funny spectacle of all that Shakespeare can be once access in to his work is fostered.

Photos – c/o Brett Boardman

Fresh space place

Drizzle Boy (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Studio

March 11 – 31

Queensland Theatre’s “Drizzle Boy” is a fresh, smart, funny and beautifully-brave play that illustrates what theatre can and should be and do. The work by Tasmanian playwright Ryan Enniss was the winner of the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2022-23, from a field of over 200 entries and right from the start of its world premiere, it is easy to appreciate why. The unique coming of age story, which is informed by the playwright’s lived experience, might well be Australia’s answer to the acclaimed “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, except that its protagonist, the eponymous Drizzle Boy is all grown up and heading off to his first day at university. By his own admission he is nervous about the thought of meeting new people. Having been diagnosed as autistic, he often feels like an alien who just wants to find his place. Then at his first-day Physics lecture, he meets fellow-space fan and his very own star-crossed love Julie (Naomi Price).

Once again Matilda Award-winning Daniel Evans’ dynamic direction of this complex story breaks our hearts before putting them back together again, however, the combined theatrical imaginations behind the show’s development need to all be commended for how they bring to life its imaginative universe. It is a fast-moving 95 minutes without interval as the story is realised by the often exaggerated characterisation that comes through the lens of the protagonist’s memory, including satire of now-horrifying previously-suggested ‘cures’ for autism.

The cast of three is incredibly hard working. David R Nixon is never off stage as Drizzle Boy, delivering a passionate performance of both pathos and high energy humour. Price and Kevin Spink are, meanwhile, in and out of differing roles throughout, which is helped immensely by Christina Smith’s bold costume design. As the company’s Artistic Director, Lee Lewis notes pre-show to the opening night audience, that their approximately 20 costume changes each, require a change average of every two minutes…. no easy feat by any means. To add to the extent of their commitment, Price and Spink also ably assume distinctly different vocals (and accents), with voice and dialect coaching by Gabrielle Rogers.

Of early note is Price’s appearance as the first woman in space Valentina Tershkova, one of Drizzle Boy’s heroes, who makes appearance in his imagined psychological space to own the room with her intense all-attitude demeanour and demanding ‘encouragement’ of his build of a rocket ship. Contrastingly, Price uses higher, softer vocal tones to capture the youthfulness of university student Julie, idealistic despite, or perhaps as a consequence of, her own recent life experiences. Her range as a performer is seen also within her role as Drizzle Boy’s unnamed Mother, who goes from increasingly hyperbolic statements in one funny scene of overreaction to poignantly daring to voice her innermost thoughts in response to initial revelation that her son is autistic.

Sprink similarly moves easily from the caricature of Drizzle Boy very-German Physics teacher to his daggy movie-mad dad with a film-based analogy for every situation (including adoption of the name Drizzle Boy), bringing laughs aplenty to his awkward attempts at that talk with his son, but always a sense of coming from a place of love and ambition to genuinely connect within a relationship shaped by neurodivergence.

With many short scenes and snappy character appearances, things pace along, yet there are still moments in which the audience can sit in the simplicities of the show’s messaging. The play is crafted in its revelations of interwoven motifs of movies, physics and space, and whether power is beyond or without our control. And, as it lets us into experience of a world designed by and for neurotypical people, it also educates in its reminder of how as humans we can look at the same thing but see things differently, through insightful description of, for example, how experience of sounds can be in colours.

Just as the story flashes forward and backwards, characters pop up, in and out of the nooks of crannies of Christina Smith’s deceptively simple set design. A reflective ring revolve stage is used judiciously so as to complement, but never distract from, audience absorption in the ultimately moving story. Light and shade are also evident in its soundtrack, which features snippets and revisits to Annie Lennox, Lizzo and alike, especially in an absolutely fabulous dance number. It is all quite eclectic, but also, carefully linked. In this way, the play is quite unique in its compact combination of many elements, including magical realism, seen, most obviously, in the goat-headed demon Baphomet that appears as expression of Drizzle Boy’s internal world, when, for example, he remembers the trauma of memories of his Year 10 formal.

“Drizzle Boy” is a very entertaining show that easily draws audiences into its orbit as it brings attention to underrepresented groups through its reflection of society seen and unseen. The lack of interval is a wise decision as this is a very special journey that should not be interrupted. Indeed, the play will readily capture your heart, especially in its illuminating conclusion, and it is easy to understand its already extended season announcements. When, like in a magical hug to humanity, Drizzle Boy takes back his story, the play also serves to educate without alienating or lecturing to its audience, making clear its message that if you’ve met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person.

Photos c/o –  Brett Boardman

Ballooning bickery

Family Values (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

January 28 – February 25

Forget never working with children or animals, as the old show business adage goes; the unpredictability of balloons, can be potentially equally treacherous, we realise as Peter Kowitz’s Roger prepares for a forthcoming party. In David Williamson’s 2020 play “Family Values”, the retired judge is turning 70 and all he wants for his birthday is some no-fuss quality family time. As his now-adult children arrive to share in celebration at the spacious privileged Ascot home (set design by Renee Mulder) of Roger and wife Sue (Andrea Moor), sometimes with guests of their own, it is pretty quickly clear that things are not going to go smoothly.

Lisa (a passionate Helen Cassidy) is the first to cyclone in with a mission to save detention centre escapee Saba (Sepi Burgiani) who is now a fugitive from Border Protection following her medevac from Nauru, demanding the keys to the family holiday house to allow her go into hiding. The unknowing divorced Michael (deliciously portrayed by Leon Cain), meanwhile, is preaching of the born-again virtues of following God’s Hillsong plan. And youngest daughter Emily (Amy Ingram) has found new love with Noeline (Jodie Le Vesconte), a Border Force boat commander, on which Emily herself serves. Cleary, this is a family of distinct characters and points of views aka all the ingredients for a classic Williamson work where the dramatic tension is driven by oppositional world views.  

It begins with bickering as Roger’s children fall back into the mocking dynamics from their youth, however, as festering family grievances are aired things escalate. And then there is question of what to do about the Saba situation, with the stakes obviously heightened by the differing ideological positions of the siblings. The play’s ensemble of characters is accurately portrayed in each instance, albeit more in detail than depth. Of particular note, Jodie Le Vesconte leans into the role of overbearing, controlling Noeline, while still allowing us to see some soft moments beyond her bluntness. And while, in her Queensland Theatre debut Sepi Burgiani gives us comparatively much quieter moments, her impassionate delivery ensures that Saba’s moving words are accepted with compassion by the audience.

In the capable hands of Kowitz and Moor, there is an immediate rhythm to the husband and wife banter between the conservative Roger and more progressive Sue before arrival of the others. The is an easy repartee between the children also as long-held resentments over Lego and alike sit alongside bigger philosophical issues, with each character’s perception ringing true to their respective realities. As conversations become more heated, they authentically overlap each other and jigsaw together with impressive precision, and the reactions of other characters are such that there is always somewhere to look.

Renee Mulder’s costume design tells us much about the diverse characters and parts they play in the social dynamic, also working well with the words of Australia’s most commercially successful playwright (of more than 50 works) to bring the play’s exploration of divisive social issues to life. Similarly, Benjamin Brockman (lighting) and Tony Brumpton’s (sound) design, creates a naturalistic canvas upon which Williamson’s trademark examination of what causes conflict can be built.

Thematically, “Family Values” covers a lot (so not all in great depth) in its inclusion of plot lines around asylum seekers (inspired by the family of Tamil asylum seekers from Biloela and research into the situation on Nauru), the growing influence of evangelism, the impact of the Murdoch press, Islamaphobia and same-sex marriage. And in subscription to Williamson’s belief that humans are anything but perfect, everyone is given equal voice and an opportunity to have us at least appreciate, if not understand their perspective. From within the seriousness of its themes and the essential angriness of the work, however, there are also lots of audience-pleasing one-liner type laughs as lens is put back on ourselves on journey to the somewhat fantastical conclusion.

“Family Values” is typical Williamson, easy to watch and enjoy in its domestic squabble shatter of society’s middle class veneer. Director Lee Lewis (who presented the work’s premiere as Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company in 2020) incisively takes its audience on a well-paced 90 minutes (without internal) to a satisfying conclusion, and while it might be akin to watching your worst family Christmas lunch play out in front of you, at least there’s an abundance of talent to keep things entertaining…. and, of course, the balloons.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Over and over 100 out

With Covid still causing disruptions, I was surprised to ultimately make it along to over 100 shows again this year. Here are my highlights from the 2022 Brisbane theatre year.

1. The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

The Queensland premiere production of Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical “The Normal Heart” was absolutely absorbing and inspirational in its unflinching look at the horrific time in our history that was the start of the AIDS epidemic.

2. A Girls Guide to World War (Musical Theatre Australia)

Inspirational, also, was Musical Theatre Australia’s tell of the true story of some amazing women forgotten by our history. The February show, which was my favourite then for most of the year, was richly rewarding in both its entertainment and education about the courageous and compassionate real life humanitarian adventurers at the core of its story.

3. Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall)

My 2022 Brisbane Festival highlight, the grand Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall co-production was an exquisite world-class design-led theatre experience, as much a celebration of the craft of storytelling as a retell of one of the Western canon’s oldest narratives

4. The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical was a historical work of a particular time, but also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love.

5. 42nd Street (Queensland Conservatorium)

There was much to also love about Queensland Conservatorium’s massive musical production of “42nd Street” as its assured performances, quality orchestrations and show-stopping ensemble production numbers captured the spirit of the show’s era and also the grand musical genre.

6. Oliver! (Savoyards)

Savoyards excellent musical revival was full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience around the troublesome aspects of “Oliver!” to a resonance of resilience and hope.

7. The Last Five Years (La Boite Theatre Company) 

La Boite’s two-hander share (in two different directions) of the ill-fated five-year relationship of aspiring artists was certainly clever in its alternate musical narration, however, was also slick in its use of space and tight in its telling thanks to the moving performances of its charismatic performers and musical stylings of its varied, bitter-sweet score.

8. Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

The Disney spectacle that came to life on the Lyric Theatre stage was a celebration of imagination, and, thus, an unforgettable production that could easily be seen again and again, making for a “Mary Poppins” anew for the whole modern family.

9. Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner (La Boite Theatre, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre)

Just before the floods came, there was this fierce and furious coproduction, sharp in its satire of cancel culture and appropriation in a viral world, but also wickedly humorous.

10. First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The hard-hitting storytelling of Queensland Theatre’s landmark blockbuster season closer was elevated by an epic soundscape and dynamic lighting to take us into a world not previously seen on stage…. the last days of Australian troop involvement in Afghanistan.

And of particular note….

Best Drama – The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

Also the most moving and thought provoking production of 2022, Ad Astra’s “The Normal Heart” allowed us to bear witness to each stage of the play’s centrepiece romance as it played out in unfiltered vulnerability, raw anger, complex beauty and undeniable love, against the backdrop of a community living in fear of AIDS.

Best Comedy – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

The one act “Hidden in this Picture” (from the pen of Emmy Award-winning playwright Aaron Sorkin), which appeared as part of Villanova Players’ intermezzo series, was full of over and over again laugh-out-loud moments emerging from the increasing hyperbole in share of what was essentially a duologue inset with simple interjections.  

Best Cabaret – Women in Voice

The 2022 outing of this Brisbane institution was the best yet in its curated program of different musical styles from its empowered female performers.

Best Dramatic Performance – Vivien Whittle – Gaslight (Growl Theatre)

Whittle was simply wonderful as the vulnerable, tormented and humiliated Bella, whether bustling about in fleeting, naive belief that all is well or blubbering in flustered confusion after being raged at by her psychologically-torturous husband Jack.

Best Comic Performance – Troy Bullock – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

Meanwhile, Bella’s gaslighting husband Troy Bullock gave the funniest performance as a first-time director Robert, intent on obtaining an Oscar-winning shot in for his movie’s final scene, until three cows make appearance along with the hundreds of extras.

Best Musical Performance – Priyah Shah – Oliver! (Savoyards)

Shah’s show of strength but also vulnerability ensured that her Nancy was not just a kindly, but a complex character and her strong vocals left the “Oliver!” audience equally impressed in rollicking tavern sing-a-long and torch song numbers alike.

Best duo – Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk – The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

The chemistry between Corowa and Lysiuk was not only evident in their protagonists’ duets, but warmed the audience into investment into the blossom of their childhood friendship in to more after his post-WW2 return to Brisbane.  

Honourable mention to Christopher Morphett-Wheatley and Darcy Rhodes – Into The Woods (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Morphett-Wheatley and Rhodes were audience favourites as they dynamically pranced about in pantomime-esque play off each other’s bravado energy as two-dimensional princes attempting to one-up each other in argument.

Best EnsembleHeathers: The Musical (Millennial Productions) 

Millennial Productions’ debut musical was a highly professional independent production, in part due to its strong performances, with nobody holding back even in edgier scenes. There were no vocal weak links as each performer was given an opportunity to shine and there was a clear level of focus in all performances, resulting in no missed beats within the show’s tight rhythm. 

Best Independent Production – Boy, Lost (Belloo Creative)

The years-in-the-making tell of the true story of one family’s loss and redemption was also an ensemble production with its actors playing multiple characters (including themselves at moments), jumping in and out of different roles with simple prop or costume enhancements, yet, as an audience, we always knew what was happening as we moved through its tightly-woven emotional journey.

Most fun – All Fired Up (Box Jelly Theatre Company)

The show so nice, I ended up seeing it twice to contemplate if a trip to the ‘80’s and a chat with your 15-year-old self really can solve a mid-life crisis? With a live band perfectly capturing the nostalgic energy of the era it was all incredibly feel good, fun and funny.

Best Staging – Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall) 

The mythical magic of “Holding Achilles” may have been multi-layered, but this was built upon a performance space reminiscent of classical Greek amphitheatres with staging exposed to the audience, in contrast to the modern technology used to sometimes literally soar the story along with aerial artistry.

Best Sound and Lighting Design – First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The sound and lighting design elements of “First Casualty” were likely worth the price of admission alone. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transformed the space and its surfaces to tell the show’s many multifaceted narratives, while sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS added to the onstage action, whether dynamic or subtle in tone.

Best Choreography – Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

Matthew Bourne’s and Stephen Mear’s “Mary Poppins” choreography (recreated for the Australian production by Richard Jones) filled the Lyric Theatre stage with a burst of moving bodies, brooms and brushes in spectacular, precise, fast-paced numbers like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Step in Time’.

Fuel for thought

Fuel (Shock Therapy Productions)

Queensland Theatre, Diane Cilento Studio

November 25 – December 3

Shock Therapy Productions’ newest work, the cleverly named “Fuel” explores some big themes in its consideration of the psychology of toxic relationships and coercive control, yet it manages to do so effectively in just a 50-minute running time, such is the craftedness of its writing by company founders Hayden Jones and Sam Foster.

The play begins with smart and kind 16-year-old Ivy (Sarah McLeod) telling us of her dreams of playing for the Firebirds and maybe even the Diamonds one day. Netball occupies a lot of her time, but she is still able to be always together with 18-year-old Seb (Zachary Boulton), her first real boyfriend of a couple months. As Seb arrives, it is clear that they are crazy about each other. However, what begins as bright young love before long deteriorates into obsession, control, need and destruction, as we witness their relationship unfold over a 12-month period.

There is nothing superfluous as things move quickly towards the first concerning tone change in Seb’s texts (projected onto screen for us to share in the full interaction). Nathan Sibthorpe’s AV design and videography play a key part in the show’s messaging, for as well as orienting us as to live action settings of the school canteen, Tuesday night hangouts in the Bunnings carpark, and alike, it also allows for news report footage that runs in parallel. In unfortunately all too recognisable scenes, even in parody, we see media coverage of the fall of rugby superstar Dallas Bronson (Sam Foster), sidelined due to alleged accusations of domestic violence against his alleged victim former spouse. As the reported national toll of deaths due to domestic violence climbs, we see the changes in Ivy in response to months of Seb’s pressure and paranoia, with Guy Webster’s dynamic sound design taking us into settings and transitioning us between live action and video scenes.

‘It’s easy to lose yourself in a new relationship,’ her friend Chase, warns Ivy, in clear foreshadowing of how things are to follow as, consumed by their relationship, Ivy loses touch with everything that was once important in her life. There are clichés too in Ivy’s words of reassurance to her d mother and likely also herself, but clichés are clichés because they are true and herein lies the potent power of the story’s messaging.

Its exploration of coercive control may be confronting to some, however, the show’s powerful messaging is tempered by some moments of humour too thanks to the efforts of its two actors who play over 20 characters as the story unfolds. Both McLeod and Boulton give rigorous performances. McLeod in particular credibly plays a 16-year-old so that we become fully invested in Ivy’s story, appreciating her confusion, self-doubt and despair and sitting with her in moments of trauma after what she has ‘made’ him do.

Boulton moves from his primary role as muscle car mad Seb to all kinds of secondary roles in support of the storytelling. Obvious physicalities work well with changed voice tones, inflections and even accents to help us follow who is who in Ivy’s world. Chasehas hands raised in hold of a not-there backpack and Ivy’s mother always hands on her hips when in concerned conversation with her about if Seb is indeed just a good guy trying to figure some things out, but even so transitions between roles become more awkward where there are multiple characters in conversation with each other within single scenes.

“FUEL” combines physical theatre, political satire and cinematic AV to create a powerful piece of contemporary theatre. It is a taut, at tines tense, work but it does what it needs to in sharing such an important reminder of the shocking statistics of domestic violence, all the forms that such abuse can take and the wide variety of groups who can be affected. The play, which has been touring for a year, is clearly written for young people in a way that doesn’t talk down to them or impose a moral message, but rather provokes conversation that continues beyond its final deserving applause and also, importantly offers hope. And for that, it should certainly be commended.

Photos c/o – Cinnamon Smith

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