First Casualty (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

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 Afghanistan veteran Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Johnston CSC, but also because of its initial action. That sees Sapper “Thommo” Ken (Reagan Mannix) faced with disarming an improvised explosive device.

Photo by Brett Boardman

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. They are 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 as they mentor a platoon from the Afghan National Army (ANA), prepare to open a local school, deal with Taliban insurgents, negotiate with powerful local warlord Malim Khan (Amer Thabet) and navigate everyday issues.

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. Under Leigh Lewis’ direction there are some quite Shakespearean moments of high drama. Indeed, there is a real grittiness to 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).

Dialogue rings true throughout. The large cast brings authenticity to the performances. 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. 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.

As impressive as the performances are, 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. A series of screens line the walls, allowing for a share of background images, media reports, calls from home and translated text. The play features Dari and Pashto languages. Craig Wilkinson’s video design takes us into the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.

An epic soundscape and dynamic lighting are also integral. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transforms the space and its surfaces to unveil the show’s many multifaceted narrative. Sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS adds greatly to the onstage action.

First Casualty is landmark, world premiere production, quite unlike what is typically seen on stage. This hard-hitting tale, perhaps an imagined account informed by authentic experience, has real impact. The show does not necessarily provide answers, but it also does not preach. Rather, it attempts to humanises the people behind the politics of war and offer insights into the soldier’s voice and experience, beyond the so-often pitied popular view.

First Casualty is at Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre, West End until 10th December, 2022.

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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