Theatre

Queensland Theatre’s First Casualty takes an unvarnished look at the costs of the war in Afghanistan. By Yen-Rong Wong.

First Casualty

Steven Rooke (on ground) and Mitchell Bourke in a scene from First Casualty.
Steven Rooke (on ground) and Mitchell Bourke in a scene from First Casualty.
Credit: Brett Boardman

First Casualty is brutally honest in its depictions of people involved in the war in Afghanistan, one of the longest in modern history. Written by Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Johnston and directed by Lee Lewis, it follows a small group of Australian soldiers who are nearing the end of their deployment at Combat Outpost Mirage in Uruzgan province in 2011.

Both acts begin and end in complete darkness. We ease into First Casualty with a slow intensification of light that eventually illuminates Sapper “Thommo” Kent (Reagan Mannix), who is disarming an improvised explosive device (IED) in the field. Strains of the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 play over the radio as he works, before he is interrupted by a young boy walking inside the device’s estimated blast radius.

After Kent convinces the boy to leave the area and disables the IED, the play moves into the base itself, where most of the main cast is introduced. Captain Trent Kelly (Mitchell Bourke) is kind but tough, a true believer in the army’s cause to help the Afghan people. Behind his confident front, he is at a loss as to how to deal with Lucy, his increasingly frustrated and pregnant wife (voiced by Christen O’Leary), with whom he only gets 10 minutes of phone time a day.

Sergeant Jack Hunter (Steven Rooke) – a gruff and uncompromising veteran of eight tours including Iraq – and Corporal Nick “Woodsy” Woods (Will Bartolo), make up the rest of the Australian contingent. Woodsy is guilt-ridden over his failure to predict the placement of an IED that maimed their last sapper, even though it is clear he is working with scant morsels of information – and this is before considering the difficulties of distinguishing between solid and misleading intelligence.

The language barrier is a constant source of concern. This manifests physically in Ali (Reza Momenzada), the group’s translator, and in the use of screened projections, which act as a vehicle for translation. They are employed to greatest effect during the play’s climax, when the screened translations mix with the English of the Australian troops, making the action deliberately difficult to follow – yet another reflection of the confusion that arises in war zones.

That said, I did appreciate that not everything in Pashto or Dari was translated – there are probably jokes and sayings that don’t translate well into English or that require cultural context to understand. This is most apparent when we meet Malim Khan (Amer Thabet), who is initially characterised as a war lord playing both sides for financial gain. However, it soon becomes clear he is doing whatever he can to stay alive in a war between the foreign troops and the Taliban – a war that he, like his fellow Afghans, did not ask for.

Similarly, Ali is stuck in a double bind that means he is mistrusted by Afghans and Australians alike. Momenzada is brilliant here, imbuing Ali with warmth, humour and vulnerability. His performance is heartbreaking and nuanced in a role that would no doubt have been difficult to embody, especially considering the constant racist remarks in the production.

I found it interesting that Ali and the Afghan soldiers – Mohammed (Arwin Arwin), Ahmed (Adam Kay), and Abdul (Silva Pearce) – are not given last names. Perhaps this is a nod to the fact that, in the Australians’ eyes, all Afghans are under suspicion, or perhaps it is a symptom of a wider political myopia.

The script includes a healthy dose of swearing and crude, often sexist jokes. To sanitise this language would have been disingenuous. In the same vein, the script doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to depictions of prejudice. The overt racism hit me harder than I’d anticipated and was the most shocking aspect of the script.

There are moments when Captain Kelly defends the Afghans, but there is no nuanced explanation of why many of them are illiterate or unwilling to trust foreigners. I hope this deliberately provocative language is successful in bringing attention to the intensity and relentlessness of the bigotry in an environment underpinned by an “us and them” mentality, rather than simply retraumatising those of us with a lived experience of racism.

The first act ends with the Australian soldiers being led into an ambush before resuming during Sergeant Hunter’s debrief with an army psychologist (again, Christen O’Leary). There is a sort of war here too, between a combat soldier and a bemedalled army professional who has never left Australia. It is a tense conversation – and as is the case with the rest of the play, both sides make valid points about the nature of war and its effects on the human psyche. If the first act is about what it is like to be in a war zone, the second is more sobering as it tackles many of the issues that arise after the withdrawal of foreign troops.

This tension is defused by a song and dance, complete with gold-sequined suits and glittery helmets, put on by Brigadier Michaela Cain (O’Leary’s third role) for the press. Members of the press (Kevin Spink and, again, Adam Kay) join in, signalling their complicity as mouthpieces for institutions that have only their own interests at heart. An original score by THE SWEATS, combined with musical direction by James Dobinson and choreography by Dan Venz, results in a spectacle reminiscent of musicals such as Chicago and Moulin Rouge!

The modern structure of a song lends itself well to this sort of satire. The chorus emphasises key sound bites that don’t say very much at all, and these scenes as a whole highlight the jarring nature of public relations stunts in war zones. They add to the play’s scathing rebuke of army bureaucracy and the secrecy around military operations, depicted most viscerally when Lucy tells Kelly their friends have been asking if he rapes Afghan women as part of his job. It takes pointed aim at the military’s lack of accountability and transparency, showing how bureaucrats shift blame from one national government to another, claiming often-manufactured successes without considering the harm they cause.

Renée Mulder’s set consists of platforms of differing heights that transform from the landscape of Afghanistan into the regimented structure of an army outpost. The platforms bring shape and dynamism to the action, and changes in scenery are contextualised by the video projections. Lighting designer Paul Jackson uses extreme contrast to great effect throughout the production but is also deft in the play’s gentler moments.

It’s hard not to think of the heartbreaking stories that emerged after the disastrous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in 2021. First Casualty delicately balances humour, sympathy and understanding for the individuals affected by war without shying away from more uncomfortable truths. 

First Casualty is at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane, until December 10.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 26, 2022 as "Dispatches of war".

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