Review: How To Breathe at Nottingham Playhouse


Seated upon an army regulation bed uncomfortably near to an elderly couple, only a metre stick away from the play’s sole actor, ‘How to Breathe’ by upcoming playwright Mufaro Makubika promised me an hour of eye-opening theatre.  Intense, challenging and problematic, this play is not for those looking for some light-hearted entertainment as it tackles ideas of love and loss, separation and survival, all through the perspective of one man’s isolated experience in a foreign world.

The conflicted voice of the play, Joseph Tambo (Trevor Mugarisanwa), is the Zimbabwean national met by the audience on the eve of his departure to Afghanistan as he prepares to fight for the British army.  Whilst packing, Joseph considers the advice of his sergeant: to compose a letter to his family on the occasion that he does not return from war.  Through an emotional and reflective monologue, Joseph reveals glimpses of his past life in Zimbabwe as he reminisces about his girl Marlene, reassuring himself that she ‘is’ his girl rather than ‘was’ his girl, his football fan father and his mother who smells of petunias.  The careful details of Joseph’s recollections demonstrate that there is something deeply human about Makubika’s writing, allowing the audience to form an attachment to the play’s only speaker despite the relatively short space of time he has to play with.

One-man productions always fill me with doubt and, despite Makubika’s imaginative writing and the experimental set design, at certain points I struggled to maintain my focus.  There seems to be limited variation in Mugarisanwa’s delivery of the lines, an issue which perhaps would not present itself in the same way if others are on stage.  A greater issue, however, is the disjointed nature of Joseph’s thoughts, memories and actions; the most telling moment being when he shuts his fingers in his locker, abruptly ending the play and causing me to look at other people’s hands to see whether it was time for an applause. 

At times he comes to life, largely during reminiscences where he is able to play with facial expressions and inject humour into the lines.  An instance of this occurs when Joseph touches upon one of society’s most controversial issues, comically grinning at the audience as he utters the loaded remark: ‘people in this country love a smiley immigrant’.  Suddenly the drama becomes more accessible and intriguing, because we are offered more than memories about characters who are connected to a world outside of the play and are therefore unknowable.

The traverse stage, constructed by rows of army beds facing each other and which double as audience seating, further helps to involve the audience in the drama.  Not only are we brought closer to Joseph himself (quite often I had to move my feet out of the way to avoid tripping him over!), we become a part of the set, sitting upon the beds as though we are his comrades and confidants.  At one point in the play, Joseph even weaves among the beds and addresses audience members in his native tongue, simultaneously including and alienating them.

This new play, which showcases fresh dramatic talent, is not a landslide victory, nor a disaster.  Aspects of the acting, the staging and the overall concept of the play intrigued me as I was introduced to an engaging and experimental style of drama.  Therefore, if you are hoping to expand your repertoire of dramatic knowledge this might just be the play for you.  I warn you though, be careful not to get too comfy on one of those beds - you might just find yourself drifting off and resting on the shoulder of the person next to you!

Buy tickets here.


Edited by Harriet Dunlea