“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” Someone you don’t want to see. Death is ever-present in the theatre of war, no matter whose side you’re fighting for.
It’s 1966. In Phuoc Tuy Province, in beautiful, forbidding, scary Vietnam, a group of young Australian soldiers have no idea of the carnage that awaits them as they set out to investigate a mortar attack that had occurred the previous day.
By the time the battle of Long Tan is over, 18 men from Delta Company and more than 245 North Vietnamese will lay dead in the blood-drenched mud of a rubber plantation not far from the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat.
Long Tan, by award-winning Australian playwright Verity Laughton, is the latest theatre piece from Adelaide’s Brink Productions. Laughton conceived the idea for the play while conducting research for a previous work, The Red Cross Letters, another piece of verbatim theatre which uses the actual words of real people.
In Long Tan, the spoken words of interviewees – 35 Australian soldiers as well as Vietnamese contributors and the family and friends of those who did not survive the battle – are combined with a constellation of sonic and visual effects designed to evoke the experience of war.
The setting is minimal. Two banks of seats flank a raised stage, its surface covered with black, shredded rubber. That, and the sounds of gunfire, rain and clouds of insects, is all that’s needed to plunge us into the horror of a fight that was “arse about beak in terms of odds”.
It’s important to note that headphones must be worn by the audience throughout the show, and the play contains elements that will be distressing to some. Our tickets came with a warning: be prepared for violence, strong language, and strobe and haze effects.
Despite the power of the battle scenes, this play is most effective in its quieter moments. It’s in the testimony of individual soldiers, their thoughts, feelings and recollections of life at war and at home, that we reach the emotional centre of the work.
Brink’s cast is exceptional, with Chris Pitman deserving a special mention for his portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith, the Commanding Officer of Delta Company.
The Vietnam War is still divisive, and the many conflicting opinions of those who were there and those who stood by them in the aftermath made the creation of this work a difficult task. One of Brink’s aims is to reflect the diversity of contemporary society, however, and in a recent interview with InDaily, director Chris Drummond explained the rationale behind the production: “The Long Tan vets feel that although their story is known, it still has not been witnessed. We want, as best we can, to give the audience just some small taste of how confronting and horrific that experience was for them and for everybody.”
Described as a “memory play”, Long Tan presents a series of stylised episodes which capture the unique viewpoint of each of Laughton’s interview subjects. The result is a moving and personal window into a dark corner of our country’s history.
Death, like a great eagle, flew over Vietnam and picked out its prey. What a waste.
Long Tan is at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until April 8.