Sydney Theatre, February 8
When Sydney Theatre Company announced that it was co-producing a new work with the Australian Defence Force about returning servicemen and women, it sounded like a wonderful initiative – though quite how it would play out on stage, given that the majority of the cast were to be soldiers, was anyone’s guess.
Well, not only is The Long Way Home a wonderful initiative but an important, moving piece of theatre with the power to make an impact on several levels. As well as offering the general public a glimpse into the experiences of our military personnel, it will hopefully aid the recovery of the participants, and help other returned soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who see it – many of whom are in denial – to realise that they are far from alone and seek help.
The production was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, after he saw a production in London called The Two Worlds of Charlie F based on the experiences of British soldiers. Stephen Rayne, who directed that production, was enlisted by the STC to direct here.
Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene crafted the script after spending a five-week workshop with 15 volunteer soldiers, who had seen active service in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor. Twelve of them appear in the play: Will Bailey, David Cantley, James Duncan, Wayne Goodman, Craig Hancock, Kyle Harris, Patrick Hayes, Tim Loch, Emma Palmer, Sarah Webster, James Whitney and Gary Wilson.
They perform alongside five professional actors: Martin Harper, Emma Jackson, Odile Le Clezio, Tahki Saul and Warwick Young. Both Harper and Young have served in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve.
Keene and Rayne decided not to create a piece of verbatim theatre, preferring the dramatic flexibility of a play with characters and several interweaving narratives.
But as Keene writes in the theatre program: “Is The Long Way Home fictional? Yes, and no. Every situation that it presents and every line of dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who perform in the play. They will play themselves re-imagined. They are bringing their reality into contact with that of their audience.”
What emerges is a tapestry of scenes in Afghanistan and Australia through which we gain an insight into the life of the soldiers during active service – the camaraderie, the terror, the adrenaline, the thrill, the horrific injuries – and then the struggle to readjust to civilian life when they return home with physical and/or psychological injuries.
Linking the scenes are various narrative arcs, the strongest of which follow two soldiers with PTSD, both battling a gnawing sense of loss and uselessness now that they can no longer be soldiers. We have known about PTSD for decades, of course, but The Long Way Home gives it a human face, taking us into the two soldiers’ minds and homes.
One of them, played by Loch, compulsively irons, cleans the house and mows the lawn to give himself something to do when sleep eludes him and hallucinations crowd in on him. The other played by Hancock finds himself becoming increasingly short-tempered and aggressive with his wife.
With professional actors Le Clezio and Jackson as their wives providing a strong emotional anchor in their scenes, both Loch and Hancock are superb, performing with a raw honesty.
As you’d expect, some of the soldiers are more relaxed and convincing on stage than others but overall they do exceptionally well and their physicality when in military mode is naturally utterly authentic.
Among many strong performances, Wilson plays a mostly comatose soldier with severe physical injuries including brain damage, who occasionally whispers lines from The Odyssey from his hospital bed. His final monologue had many in the opening night audience in tears – civilians and uniformed men alike.
Whitney is also terrific as a soldier giving stand-up comedy a go, with some cringe-makingly awful jokes.
Rayne directs a tight, brilliantly staged production. Renee Mulder’s flexible set with sliding screens and a huge screen at the back, onto which is projected video imagery by David Bergman as well as text and interviews with the soldiers, is highly effective. The recurring image of armed soldiers in combat camouflage silhouetted against the back screen becomes like a leit motif, both familiar and also somewhat sinister.
Damien Cooper’s masterly lighting and Steve Francis’ crashing, rock-like soundscape also play a huge role in creating a highly charged, atmospheric space.
Keene’s script is funny, poetic and moving. It captures the robust, droll, F-bombing humour of the soldiers, which has the audience roaring with laughter. The next minute we are holding our breath at the brutal honesty of some of the confessions – from the mistaken killing of civilian women and children to the emotional breakdown of a weeping, traumatised ex-soldier.
Two sketch-like scenes in which a comedy character called Lieutenant Neville Stiffy (Tahki) dissects the “yes” and “no” parts of a soldier’s brain, and the way commands from the top brass filter down to the lower ranks, sit a bit oddly. There are also a few things that don’t quite ring true (would the doctor really talk like that about a patient, in front of him, even if he does appear to be comatose?).
But overall, even if there are no profound insights, The Long Way Home (which runs around two hours and ten minutes including interval) is a remarkable achievement.
The participating soldiers, some of whom had never even been in a theatre before, deserve high praise for opening themselves up in this way and for their commendable performances. Hopefully they will gain something from the experience. (Apparently Wilson’s speech – which was affected by his horrific injuries after a helicopter crash – has developed markedly after working with vocal coach Charmian Gradwell).
Audiences will certainly be enlightened and moved by the play. And if returned military personnel, particularly those suffering with PTSD, do see it – as hopefully they will – one can only imagine how it might speak to them.
The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre until February 15 then tours to Darwin (February 22), Brisbane (February 27 – March 1), Wollongong (March 5 – 8), Townsville (March 14 – 15), Canberrra (March 19 – 22), Melbourne (March 27 – 29), Adelaide (April 1 – 5) and Perth (April 11 – 12). Booking details: www.sydneytheatre.com.au
An interview with Corporal Tim Loch and playwright Daniel Keene can be found here: https://jolitson.com/2014/01/28/the-long-way-home/