Unconventionally gripping from the start, How to Breathe written by Mufaro Makubika denotes the political and racial complexities of an immigrant as he weighs the value of his life. The night before his deployment to Afghanistan to fight for the British Army, Joseph Tambo, captivatingly portrayed by Trevor Mugarisanwa, has a letter to write and a decision to make. With ambiguous expectations the audience filters into the smoky and ill-lit Neville Studio to find not seats but questionably sinister army barrack beds to sit upon. The Zimbawean national lies still on an identical bed in the centre with only his breathing to captivate a tentative audience. There is the feeling, in the initial hesitant moments of silence, that the viewer is no longer detached and distant but engrossed in the troubled conscience of a scared soldier.
With a series of contorted movements made emphatic by the disconcerting soundtrack and disorientating lights, the play begins. ‘The dream always starts the same’ he begins, his delicate Zimbabwean accent emerging as Joseph initiates his hour-long monologue; my first impression is one of intrigued patience. We listen closely as he tells a series of anecdotes that envelop the viewer into a journey of his memories and dreams, making visible the bittersweet intricacies of choice. Stories of family life, watching Liverpool play football on television, his journey to the UK and his account of the girl, Marlene, he left behind, are convincingly dictated. It was as though he was trying to prove something to the audience, that he had made the right decision, prove that he was strong enough and convince himself that Toke, short for token black guy, was an inoffensive nickname and just ‘banter’. I applaud the way Mugarisanwa, with the help of director Esther Richardson, actively engaged the audience, not just through an effective use of the studio space but how the Zimbabwean actor broke the invisible boundary between voyeur and subject to develop a mature but tangibly intimate connection with the viewer.
It was as though he was trying to prove something to the audience, that he had made the right decision, prove that he was strong enough
Sombre and thought-provoking throughout I cannot, however, help thinking that Joseph’s character had moments of weakness that left the viewer questioning his broader message. As an evident microcosm for a world of choice and sacrifice, Joseph’s accounts lacked substance as they merely lay the foundations for an epiphany that the viewer was left waiting for. From the beginning the audience was not a bystander – we were a society both subject and creators of his demise. This therefore established an active role on my part and one which expected more passion from an immigrant the night before his life was to be completely altered. I wanted to see the pain and passion, but also a desperate need to feel the anguish which he so obviously held within.
Something emerged from both Joseph and Mugarisanwa that exposed the susceptibility I wanted so much to feel earlier on.
As the play drew into its closing minutes however my palms grew sweaty and my eyes began to water as I dared not blink. Something emerged from both Joseph and Mugarisanwa that exposed the susceptibility I wanted so much to feel earlier on. There was the realisation that we were the letter he was writing and that he was questioning the decisions he had made and acknowledging the constant battle of an immigrant in the race to catch up with a society full of expectation. His stories I previously thought to be naive and pointless were in fact components of his battle and the reason why he now stood before us tired and vulnerable. The audience subconsciously knew they were waiting for something and Makubika did not disappoint.
Sombre, suitably intense and with just enough political and racial humour to pinch the skin, How To Breathe weaves a web of intensity that leaves the viewer exposed, exhausted but definitely satisfied.
‘How to Breathe’ is running till Saturday 21st February. For more information, see here
Images credited to Robert Day