April 05, 2017

Dramatic reflections on the pity of war

Long Tan
by Verity Laughton
Presented by Brink Productions
in association with State Theatre Company
and Adelaide Festival Centre.
April 4. Space Theatre.
Tickets : $20 – $49. Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until April 8. Duration: 2 hours (no interval)

It was fifty years ago last year, on August 18, 1966, that the battle of
Long Tan, one of the most ferocious in the Australian campaign in Vietnam, was fought in a rubber plantation five kilometres from the newly operational Task Force Base in Nui Dat. The 105 Australians and three New Zealanders of Delta Company, 6RAR, fought a North Vietnamese Regiment of 1400 men plus another 750 local troops.

The battle lasted four hours, from 3.40 pm until 7 pm, when the Vietnamese retreated with heavy casualties. The Australians had prevailed, but the cost was high. Seventeen died (the average age was 21) and 25 were wounded, many seriously.

In what she describes as a “semi-verbatim” play, writer Verity Laughton has painstakingly gathered first-hand interview material, as well as official sources, to retell the experiences, not only of the soldiers under fire, but Vietnamese perspectives also. It is a compelling text, anchored in authentic witness, but skilfully shaped as narrative as well. The voices of real people speak their (sometimes conflicting) versions of events and emotions, and this outstanding Brink production, commandingly directed by Chris Drummond, honours both their courage and their candour.

In 1918, not quite fifty years before the events of Long Tan, the English soldier poet, Wilfred Owen wrote: “My subject is War and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” This play is also about the pity of war, and the drama is in the pity.

Staging a battle in a theatre is perilous task and any attempt at sustained realism is hostage to gesture and cliché. But it is precisely because Drummond and his creative team are not re-creating Hacksaw Ridge that it is so theatrically memorable.

Audience members are allocated individual stereo headsets which blend Luke Smiles’s sombre music and war-torn soundscape with the actors’ voices – narrating the action and whispering their innermost thoughts. This insinuating soundtrack directs our attention to various points of action on designer Wendy Todd’s impressively simple, raised rectangular traverse stage darkly covered in shredded rubber.

Drummond keeps the actors’ movement stylised and simple, kitted in non-replica combat gear and carrying abstract cut-out weapons (Todd’s design is intentionally unspecific.) The battle scenes are dramatised by lighting designer Chris Petridis’ horizontal sprays of strafing vari-lites, sound effects, and the vividness of Laughton’s witness statements.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Chris Pitman leads from the front as Major Harry Smith, Patrick Graham is irrepressible as the heroic Jack Kirby, and Meme Thorne’s Mrs Xiu strongly depicts a mother’s grief. Nic Krieg’s post-mortem monologue is an anthem to doomed youth and Elijah Valadian-Wilson makes a promising debut as Buddy Lea. Matthew Gregan, Patrick Klavins and Guy O’Grady also contribute strongly.

Long Tan is a fine play about a tragic event and this exceptional production deserves a life far beyond this current short season.

“Dramatic reflections on the pity of war”, The Australian, April 7, 2017, p.18.

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