Mufaro Makubika's play 'How to Breathe' is a play that truly takes the audience under its protagonist's wing to hear his hour long story. We are seated within the playing space on army beds and plastic chairs. In the middle of the space, that acts like a theatre in the round but also as a promenade, is a young soldier asleep. Above the audience hang around forty lamps such as we might imagine situated in a modern army barracks. The design is by Sarah Perks. Sara has designed for over 140 productions and for a wide variety of theatre's, venues, sites and genres and the class shines through. Sarah has also been Associate Designer at Mercury Theatre, Colchester and English Touring Theatre. She has a brilliant pedigree and her website can be seen at www.sarahperkstheatredesign.co.uk. The sound design in this piece was developed through Poetical Machines based in Derby. In reviewing a play these aspects are often omitted but without these talents we would have a much lesser experience in theatre going. So on to the piece itself:
The audience is peculiarly quiet on entering the Neville Studio and seat themselves respectfully almost to the point of not wanting to disturb the sleep of the incumbent soldier. Such is the atmosphere set that, unusually, there is no audience pre-show chit chat – no rattling of sweets – no ghostly mobiles glowing in the semi dark or going off during the play or pre-amble. 8pm precisely, the lights flicker, go out and a spotlight suddenly shines on the soldier – his small framed body now up on the defensive - his fingers at the proverbial trigger - and himself slightly panicked from a bad dream. His breathing is rapid. His mouth is dry. His dark intelligent eyes wetly survey the audience in the gloom of the space. Already we are rapt.
Trevor Mugarisanwa plays new army recruit Joseph Tambo as he is about to leave for his first tour to Afghanistan. With a smile he explains to the audience that his army mates call him Toke. Toke is short for token black soldier. Mugarisanwa's character doesn't have a problem with that. Although he is an immigrant from Zimbabwe and his skin colour is black he sees the nickname as a bonding element of soldier-hood. In a very confident and ultimately confiding portrayal Mugarisanwa explains about his childhood, his one best friend, his connections back home, his decision to migrate to Great Britain, his love of football and his very particular and individual experiences as a migrant.
Writer Mufaro Makubika has written a wonderful one man show that has legs. By this I mean that I can see it being performed in other small venues across the world. Many people have experiences as migrants and Makubika's writing brings out the personal story through a likeable character who often wonders if he has done the right thing by joining the army. His character's dialogue negates the fear and transfers the guilt/pressure onto others that are the un-named; those new recruits under pressure being of being weeded out. Not only that but he himself has joined the army without telling his parents. More guilt. This decision loses him friends but allegedly also gains him new friends in his unit. This decision however could literally cost him his life – you might say - take his last young breath away from him. This is a theatrical journey that takes a lively and engaging young man who engrosses his spell bound audience in his tales – employs dance as a medium of expression, colluding laughter as a method towards developing kinships.
Through the director Esther Richardson's expert hands 'How To Breathe' is a sell out show at Nottingham Playhouse's Neville Studio offering Trevor Mugarisanwa a professional acting opportunity outside of his student work at East 15 drama school and the writer Mufaro Makubika a realised chance at exploring the complexities of immigration by telling a story that he feels is rarely told. From the breath comes the word and from words come means of expression. 'How To Breathe' is a story beautifully expressed from both parties. Nottingham Playhouse should also be praised for giving new work a chance to breathe and be heard.