The war at home: Writer Daniel Keene collaborated with service to tell their tales. Photo: Tamara Dean
Sydney Theatre. February 8-15
Reviewed by Jason Blake
**** (4 stars)
On stage: Australia's experience in wars. Photo: Supplied
A typical Sydney Theatre Company program will feature a glossy advert for a high-end European sedan on the back cover. Tonight, the space has been taken by defence contractor Thales to show off its latest roadside bomb-resistant 4X4. But then, this is not your typical theatre show.
Initiated by the Australian Defence Force in collaboration with the STC and writer Daniel Keene, The Long Way Home is the visible tip of a lengthy therapeutic process in which returned military personnel suffering physical and psychological injuries earned in combat and elsewhere, tell their side of the story. It is a powerful, humanising and evidently healing experience.
Written in response to and collaboration with these soldiers, Keene's script is a collage of scenes ranging from the domestic to the comic to the hallucinatory. The strongest focus is on two soldiers portrayed by real-life servicemen Tim Loch and Craig Hancock, veterans of the ADF's Afghanistan deployment. Loch's character can't sleep (many veterans don't) and compulsively cleans the house from top to bottom in the wee hours. Hancock plays a man suffering in silence and fast losing contact with his wife (Emma Jackson), who has to duck and weave around his dark turns of mood.
Elsewhere there are combat-zone vignettes, drenched in gallows humour and peppered with F-bombs. In others, signalman Gary Wilson, comatose after suffering serious wounds including brain injuries in a helicopter crash, whispers lines from Homer's Odyssey to passers-by from his hospital bed.
The majority of the men and women on stage are not actors. Prior to their involvement in this project, some had never seen a piece of live theatre. Directed by Stephen Rayne, who helmed a similar project, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, in London in 2012, most prove more than adequate performers and all bring their unimpeachable authenticity to the stage in their voice, gait and posture.
Some have the gift, however. Loch is excellent in his understated way and third-generation soldier James Whitney's toe-curling attempt at stand-up comedy is a highlight. Wilson's concluding speech – his slight slurring betraying the injuries he continues to overcome – brought some to tears (including men in dress uniform). Kyle Harris's piece to camera was particularly piercing.
The professional actors in the cast are sensitive to their non-pro colleagues and make strong individual contributions. Takhi Saul offers light relief as a Lieutenant Colonel delivering a lecture on the soldierly brain and Martin Harper is spot-on as a world-weary recruiter.
The STC's vocal coach Charmian Gradwell deserves a substantial nod for bringing raw voices to this level. So does the ADF brass for backing a work that does not always show their organisation in the best light and frequently mocks its methods.
Divided into two hour-long halves, this is a fast-moving and visually arresting theatre. Renee Mulder's set of sliding screens shutters and shapes the playing space very effectively. The work of video designer David Bergman (grainy effects, projected text, unflinching straight-to-camera interviews) is powerful and Damien Cooper makes dramatic use of spotlights and shadow. Steve Francis's sound design is exceptional for its detail, dynamic range and impact.
The Long Way Home plays a short season in Sydney before embarking on an eight-week tour. Whatever your feelings are regarding the ADF and its involvement in Afghanistan, I urge you to see it.