‘First Casualty’ // Queensland Theatre


‘First Casualty’ was potent.

Artistic Director Lee Lewis leads an emboldened and dexterous cast in ‘First Casualty’. The actors portray the diverse, dedicated and disheartened serving soldiers, who fuse as a pack to tell Christopher Johnston’s harrowing stories from his memories as a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From the show’s opening, there is a widespread depiction of no man’s land. This ebbs and flows between bomb diffusions and gunpoint confrontation, to the hilarious, regularly crude humour and camaraderie shared between Australian men. Alone for months, they have rations to haggle and bucket showers to squeeze between missions. Amongst the expected fast-paced and danger-filled infiltrations and deeply confronting depictions of strategic pacts, the simpler one-on-one moments of comradery and recognisable banter between soldiers is the most memorable. Stories of longing for belonging and juggling their identities in and out of the war world keep Johnston’s work grounded in purpose. Not only are we witnessing the men’s danger, fear, and bravery, but also their doubts, confusion, and conflicts. These trickle in with each discussion of life back home and rear their heads during moments of heartache, heartbreak, and, for some, losses of hope.

The story’s setting is constructed as a layered, inescapable landscape laden with harsh elements and thick with a foreboding that surrounds the set. Designer Renée Mulder creates a set that begins with dark dirt lining the floor and numerous wooden platforms that increase in height and numbers The design builds to a peak upstage for influential figures to stand upon or stage inhibitors to dart between or across. Sound designers THE SWEATS and Brady Watkins provide a range of sensory experiences, from stripped-back phone calls to loved ones, to deafening gunfire and explosions in the depths of confronting combat. Lining the outer walls of the set are screens. These compliment the environment with inhabitants and layered depictions of flames and explosions, as well as more subtitle translations of conversations in Dari that offer audiences a varied experience of focus and fear. The stage and its story are wrapped in a tight grip, as if the environment is an ever-present reminder of isolation, difference, and danger.

The cast of twelve who tell this complex collection of stories, relationships and conflict within their Combat Outpost creates a detailed depiction of allegiances, threats and isolations between soldiers and warlords alike. Mitchell Bourke brings a heavy focus yet earnest hope to Captain Trent Kelly. He does well to depict Kelly’s efforts to lead his troops through carefully calculated negotiations and maintain control throughout daunting curveballs. Meanwhile, Steven Rooke’s portrayal of the coarse and aggressive Sergeant Jack Hunter, with his simmering hunger for assertion and intimidation, instigates a steady incline towards violence. Younger soldiers Corporal Nick “Woodsy” Woods (Will Bartolo) and Sapper “Thommo” Kent (Reagan Mannix) demonstrate fierce dedication and a more boyish charm to the group’s dynamic. They switch between daring acts of heart and bravery to childish banter filled with innuendos and sarcasm. Finally, Reza Momenzada’s depiction of Ali, the translator for the Captain and his troop, brings up moral dilemmas surrounding trust, belonging and even the age-old fight between brain and brawn.

Meanwhile, musical team Max Lambert, James Dobinson and Dan Venz offer a satirical, dazzling, yet deeply unsettling musical number that takes Johnston’s alienating lyrics to new heights. Army helmets and vests are bedazzled as soldiers perform for the press like political puppets. The play breaks from its journey through peaks and valleys of life-threatening ambushes and monotonous waiting, to present a camp-yet-callous media misrepresentation that jars in a humorous-yet-frustrating contrast with Johnston’s otherwise percipient depictions of the realities of deployment to war for frontline soldiers.

Johnston states that ‘First Casualty’ is not a documentary or official history but a piece of fiction imagined away from reality. The production’s layered design, emboldened performances, and harrowing depictions of violence and danger, all combine to present Queensland Theatre audiences with a collection of stories, experiences, and memories that could easily be lost with fallen servicemen and women, hidden beneath blinkered media coverage, or warped and battered like the spirits of wounded and traumatised soldiers.

‘First Casualty’ performs until Saturday, 10 December 2022 at Queensland Theatre. For more information visit their website.

You may also like