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Sydney Review- Breathless – A rehearsed reading: the human cost of warfare

By Paul Kiely

Breathless – A rehearsed reading

By Deborah Mulhall

Directed by Shondelle Pratt

A New Theatre Production

New Theatre

542 King Street


Season: 25 April 2021. Duration: 90 minutes with interval

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them” - Laurence Binyon.

The places and times of war may change, but the human horror and anguish remains the same. In a special presentation of Breathless – A rehearsed reading held on Anzac Day at the New Theatre, writer Deborah Mulhall explains the dreadful human cost of warfare.

The presentation style is respectful and solemn as the subject matter would demand. Eleven actors are seated on stage and read out their lines as would be done for any new production. Dressed in black with their character names spelled out in front of them, the words they utter take centre-stage, not distracted by movement or action.

Over two Acts split by an interval we hear the stories of four men, each in the same Army unit but at four different theatres of war in Australia’s history.

There is Tom, destined for New Guinea in WWII; Alan, deployed numerous times to Iraq during the war on terror; Dave, a conscript sent to Vietnam; and Harry, dutifully serving his country in France in WWI.

Breathless is a professionally researched and planned piece of writing. Having spoken to many soldiers, visiting many battlegrounds and absorbing many heartfelt letters, Deborah Mulhall has spliced history, individual true accounts and societal attitudes. The end result is a concise yet brilliant and absorbing theatre production.

Told over nine parts, the four soldiers reveal their stories from Joining (Part 1) through to Consequences (Part 9).

Tom (Peter Maple) is a country boy, eager at first to do his bit. Once on the Kokoda Trail, there are stories of leaches in eyeballs and cannibalism. The claim that “The Japs wear glasses as thick as coke bottles” is soon revealed to be a myth. Upon returning home he marries Joyce (Emma Louise) but is forever tormented by ghastly wartime nightmares.

From a family of long military service, Alan (Rocco Forrester-Sach) feels his duty to sign up. Over time, he cannot balance his relationship with Louisa (Lexie Dent) without compromising his commitment to his ‘mates’ back in the Middle East.

As the Vietnam War gains momentum, Dave (Luke Carson) is conscripted and tries to do the honourable thing. His girlfriend Donna (Chloe Tobin) is active in the peace movement. With chants of “Hell No! We won’t go” and “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today” ringing in his ears, Dave’s attitudes to the war effort changes.

With patriotism towards King and Country unflappable, Harry (Aslam Abdus-Samad) heads off to fight WWI in France. As he leaves, his mother (Catherine McGraffin) mutters a prayer “Keep him safe please God”. Harry finds a soulmate in Milo (Zoran Jevtic), a French Soldier, and together they dream of a future.

The four soldiers all have different outcomes but the Army mantra of “Always clean your gun” gave them a common link.

Completing the cast line up is Rowen (Neil Parikh) and the Reader (Erica Venter). The Director is Shondelle Pratt.

There are themes of suicide and battle stress (PTSD) throughout the presentation. Sadness and disappointment dominate the emotions.

I commend Breathles’ if you find a chance to see it. Hopefully, a day will come when no one has to live it. As Donna says “Wars exist because people are willing to fight them”