April 2014

Arts & Letters

Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s ‘The Long Way Home’

By Claire Corbett

© Lisa Tomasetti

The lives of returned soldiers

Ongoing trauma is not easy to honour. We find it simpler to glorify a dead soldier than to look after a physically and mentally wounded live one. In The Long Way Home, the innovative, historic theatre collaboration between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Sydney Theatre Company now touring the country, a serviceman reflects that if only he’d died in Afghanistan, he’d be remembered. Too many returned soldiers and their families have been given the injunction to suffer in silence, rather than speak out and risk being accused of dishonouring Australian heroes.

Initiated by General David Hurley, the chief of the ADF, The Long Way Home confronts such attitudes, as well as being therapeutic, it is hoped, for those involved. Instead of hiding injuries, vulnerability, rage and depression, The Long Way Home presents 12 real servicemen and women working with four actors to lay bare the difficulties in adjusting to life after service in Afghanistan. The Long Way Home is an attempt by the ADF to reach out to the rest of the nation, to share what it means to return home from war and to share experiences almost impossible to convey.

An effort like this has been a long time coming. Soldiers in the play praise the authenticity of Generation Kill, the 2008 HBO miniseries based on the book of the same name by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone journalist who spent two months with American marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There is a dearth of in-depth work like this in Australia. Is it because of a lack of interest or a lack of access? Whatever the reason, it highlights the superficiality of Australian political and cultural debate on the military, security and defence.

Inspired by The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a British production by Bravo 22 Company, Hurley wanted to use the resources of theatre to help Australians connect with the experiences of soldiers. “I brought the idea back,” he told ABC Arts Online, “and thought it was not primarily about rehabilitation of particular members, but first about getting the story about the journey of our members out.” Stephen Rayne, who directed The Two Worlds of Charlie F, and Daniel Keene, an Australian playwright, cleverly deploy a range of theatrical storytelling devices, shifting from one technique to the next to distil the essence of these soldiers’ stories and to get under our skins.

A video wall at the back of the stage displays TV static that suggests the confusion inside the soldiers’ heads. The images change to interviews with servicemen and women, to night skies over Afghanistan. Scenes are introduced with Brechtian titles that hint at their content: “Orders”, “Yes and No”, “Ticking the Boxes”. Performers romp onstage, as children playing war games in which the “baddie” never has a decent weapon; then as adults they support each other on their return from an actual war. Soldiers prowl, their rifles sometimes aimed at us, the audience, their anonymous helmeted figures an ambiguous, ominous presence.

A soldier on guard duty at night in Afghanistan tries to talk himself through his anxiety. He worries over the collective noun for a group of crows; he worries over his lack of sleep, his poor memory. Of the difficulty of finding a new career, one soldier says, “If you want shit blown up or run over with a heavy truck, I’m your man.” The line attracts the biggest laugh of the night.

The production does strike a couple of false notes. One is the appearance of a prissy lieutenant colonel lecturing civilian audiences. While received well by the crowd, these scenes smacked of officer-bashing for easy laughs, as if a character from Blackadder Goes Forth had taken the stage. The line “Do you think they make us hate them so we won’t hate each other?” seemed more insightful on relations between officers and men.

Then there’s the Foucault-reading Marxist recruit, presented as hopelessly unequal to the physical demands of basic training. It’s a cheap shot, and this kind of hostility to intellectual activity is in part what allows Australian soldiers to be deployed with so little nuanced public debate. Despite the quotation from the Odyssey in the play’s title, the subtle Odysseus, “that endlessly cunning man”, would not be welcome on the stage.

The closest thing to political comment comes when a soldier muses on why Afghans, even if they hate the Taliban, are not more grateful to the international troops. He reflects that he hates plenty of people in Penrith but wouldn’t be pleased if foreign soldiers came to kill them.

These are minor flaws in a production that achieves its most powerful effects when it blurs the line between theatre and real life. In the most haunting narrative strand, soldiers visit a comatose mate in hospital. He is played by Lance Corporal Gary Wilson, who survived a helicopter crash in 2010 and was in a coma for ten weeks. While he lies unconscious, his mates confess their tales of private anguish. He whispers enigmatic words that appear on the video wall and turn out to be another quote from the Odyssey, this time from the opening:

Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so, he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to.

The references to the Odyssey are fitting. Through ten years and many strange trials, Odysseus navigates his return from the decade-long Trojan War. The journey home takes as long and is just as perilous as the war itself, and Odysseus’ reunion with his wife is no less risky.

One of the production’s central stories follows a man (Tim Loch) and his wife (Odile le Clezio) and the difficulties they have with every aspect of daily life since the man has lost his work and identity as a soldier. He cannot sleep, obsessively cleaning the house at two in the morning instead. When his wife objects, he argues that she’d asked him to help out more. He doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want to see anyone, explodes with anger and turns to drink.

The video wall during these scenes shows us vistas of Australian sky, but between us and the screen loom the ominous, patrolling soldiers. These hallucinatory figures haunt Loch’s character. In one of the play’s best scenes, “Orders”, he attempts to banish their uncanny presence by giving them a mission, to be formally executed in proper military fashion, to leave him alone. Near the play’s end, the stage fills with these uniformed phantoms. The distressed Loch protests that he doesn’t know any of them, that it’s unfair for him to be “haunted by strangers”.

The language of the production at its best uses the rhythm and compression of the way soldiers speak. “I look in the mirror and I see nothing,” says one soldier. Describing combat operations, one says there is “plenty of time but no days”. The spareness of such speech reminds me of the dialogue in Patrick White plays such as The Ham Funeral, a true poetic Australian vernacular.

The soldiers’ acting is strong, especially for non-professionals, with Loch remarkable in a starring role, to the point that the production would have suffered had they been more polished. When it became clear how some performers had to grapple with their injuries in order to stand on stage and speak at all – for example, in Wilson’s slightly halting speech that closes the play – the audience was moved to tears and a standing ovation.

Important as The Long Way Home is as a milestone in collaboration between the ADF and an Australian theatre company, it can only help so many soldiers and reach so many members of the public. As James Brown, a former army officer and now defence analyst, has noted, Australia will spend $325 million on commemorating the centenary of World War One, twice what we spend each year on mental health for returning servicemen and women.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.




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