The theatre of war is a far cry from the theatre of entertainment, but the two worlds converge in a new production highlighting the ongoing physical and psychological trauma suffered by many Australian soldiers.
The Long Way Home, which is playing in Adelaide next month, features a cast of 12 current and former servicemen and women alongside four professional actors and was produced by the Sydney Theatre Company with the support of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).
Australian playwright Daniel Keene told InDaily he and British director Stephen Rayne spent six weeks meeting with the soldiers and learning about their experiences. All had served overseas, mostly in the war in Afghanistan.
“It was a meeting of two different worlds – the soldiers meeting the arty-farty types,” he says of the initial encounter.
“That meeting was strange and funny, but after a very short time it became a very interesting group of people.”
The participants had volunteered through the ADF to be involved in the play. Most are currently transitioning out of the forces, having suffered physical, and/or psychological injuries – such as young South Australian Will Bailey, who was just 22 when he enlisted in the Royal Australian Infantry Corps and was shot in the leg a year later while on duty in a combat zone in Afghanistan.
Like many returned soldiers, Bailey struggled with loneliness and other problems during his recovery, and came to see The Long Way Home as a way to increase public awareness of these “invisible issues”.
“What emerged really clearly from the outset is that the common experience to everyone is the difficulty of coming home,” says Keene.
“The transition from active service or deployment in really difficult circumstances, where your life is at risk and you are doing really dangerous things, then having to come back into normal life, is really, really difficult.”
Some of those in the play are on heavy medication to control pain; others struggle with emotional and psychological trauma.
“When you are walking around and you look like everyone else but you’re not the same as everyone else; you might have a serious spinal injury or you can’t be in a crowd or you have a panic attack being on public transport,” Keene says.
“A lot of people have a lot of sleep problems and if they do go to sleep, they have recurring nightmares. For a couple of the guys, if they get two hours sleep, it’s a good night.”
Such problems inevitably put stress on family relationships, often resulting in estrangement.
These are not easy things to talk about, but Keene says the servicemen and women were honest, direct and courageous. For some, the process was cathartic.
Keene created a number of fictional stories for The Long Way Home based on the real experiences shared. The service personnel, who were given a crash course in acting by Rayne, do not play themselves, but characters with different names and comparable experiences.
Given that the project was initiated by the Australian Defence Force – ADF chief General David Hurley approached Rayne after seeing a similar production he created with British soldiers – Keene was understandably nervous at the outset.
Ultimately, however, he says the ADF was very supportive.
“I was told right at the beginning that I could write what I wanted and it didn’t have to be an advertisement from the army … there are criticisms in it, and humour.
“That was a surprising thing – the wicked sense of humour [of the soldiers]. It’s very dry and terribly Australian; wicked and black and self-deprecating.”
That humour helped when the servicemen and women, some of whom had apparently never even seen a play before, had to learn basic acting skills. Keene says they approached the new challenge with energy and enthusiasm. A glowing review of the Sydney performance said “most prove more than adequate performers and all bring their unimpeachable authenticity to the stage in their voice, gait and posture”.
Keene says all the participants hope the play, which also has the support of RSL South Australia, will give audiences a better understanding of the experiences of servicemen and women.
“It might be a bit of an eye-opener about what life in the army is like and what the challenges are these people face.”
The Long Way Home, a Sydney Theatre Company and Australian Department of Defence Production, will be presented by the State Theatre Company of SA and the Adelaide Festival Centre at the Dunstan Playhouse from April 1-5.
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