While the physical results of war, of being involved in war, are sometimes easy to notice, the psychological and emotional results are not. Often going undetected, they can make the transition from serving in the military to civilian life hard, for both the returned soldiers and their families. As part of the rehabilitation process, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and Sydney Theatre Company have joined forces to stage The Long Way Home, a kind of theatrical collage of scenes, anecdotes, video snippets and excerpts from life.
Written by Daniel Keene and directed by Stephen Rayne, The Long Way Home is not quite verbatim theatre, nor is it a theatrical documentary, as we have seen previously in Belvoir’s Beautiful One Day or Coranderrk, say. Rather, as
writes in the program, “every situation that it presents and every line of
dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who will perform the
play. They play themselves reimagined.” It’s a bold move, and rightly so, as
all involved are acutely aware that you cannot replicate wars or ‘real life’ on
stage. “The theatre is the perfect place for this kind of meeting,” Keene continues, “a place
where truth and fiction can co-exist, where reality can be imagined.” Keene
Set upon a blank stage, the space is shaped and constantly rearranged by the use of four moveable screens, which serve as masking devices for scene changes, projection screens, backdrops, scenic elements. With the simple use of Damien Cooper’s lights and clever projections (Renée Mulder and David Bergman), we are transported from scene to scene effortlessly, effectively, creatively. In another’s hands, the project might have ended up as a revue, a kind of pastiche that potentially glorified war and or our nation’s involvement in overseas conflicts; here, in the hands of Stephen Rayne (who directed a similar project in London in 2012), it is a brutal and unflinching, unapologetic, examination of the effects of war on those on the front line. Perhaps The Long Way Home is a kind of mirror to the recent Black Diggers, in that they both form a set of complementary fragmented and fractured narratives evoking the kaleidoscopic nature of battle, all at once human and epic, gestural and visceral.
A defining feature of Rayne’s production is the eerie spectral presence of a patrol of soldiers, dressed in fatigues, masks, goggles; their faces obscured, hidden; faceless men and women constantly moving across the stage like ghosts, drifting through scenes, coalescing around characters/actors; always there. In many poignant sequences, the patrol stands silent as one returned soldier or another confronts them, demands to know why they are there, but of course we know they are not really there, just a part of their tortured and fractured mind. It’s harrowing, sobering, and altogether heartbreaking; you can never really leave the military once you’re in, they seem to be saying. One way or another, you’re still out there, still on patrol, still fighting. In many respects, this is true of the experiences recounted across the production’s two-hour duration.
There are many beautiful scenes – though, perhaps ‘beautiful’ isn’t the right word to use. Poignant doesn’t fit, either, but they are heartbreaking; unexpectedly tender; undeniably ‘masculine’, yet poetic in its telling and evocation. It is also shot through with a very dark sense of humour, and language that could offend if the context or circumstances were any different. They say humour is the best medicine, or at least laughter, but beneath the old adage lies a truth that each of these returned soldiers knows: humour, no matter how black or ugly, disguises the knife-edge between joy and sorrow, keeps one from losing one’s mind. Particular stand-outs in this regard are the scenes in which the actor Tahki Saul portrays a military officer explaining the several types of ‘yes’ – from the ‘yes sir/ma’am’ to the ‘yes boss’ and the ambiguous affirmative of the silent response – and then explains the trickle-down effect of the command-giving process. The production also highlights the relationships that suffer as a result of war, the broken and irreparable bonds, the couples trying to make it work despite everything, because of everything. They take refuge in normalcy, in the familiar, whatever that may be, even if it takes an extreme effort.
I cannot begin to imagine what it is like for the dozen military personnel performing on stage, effectively telling and reimagining, reliving, their stories across the production’s multiple seasons around the country. Designed as a part of a broader rehabilitation program, The Long Way Home is nothing short of extraordinary, not just in the unflinching honesty and candour with which it carries itself, but because of its very existence – that the military have worked alongside one of the nation’s biggest theatre companies to produce a piece of theatre which does not shy away from depicting war, from depicting people, people in war, at its worst.
At its conclusion, the cast – soldiers and actors alike – stood at the front of the stage, silent and stationary, no bows, no curtain calls, just the acknowledgement that what you have just seen is what happened; there was no performance, they seem to be saying; they are themselves, no more no less. And it is a truly humbling experience.
Theatre playlist: 9. Synchrotone, Hans Zimmer