Upon hearing that I was going to see ‘The Long Way Home’, friends who had seen it at the opening of the show the night before said to me, ‘I’ll be interested in your thoughts’. Immediately I presumed I would be walking into a disaster zone, especially when I heard that most of the cast were ex or current army personnel. Daniel Keene’s massaged and reinvented style of verbatim play, as he describes it is “born out of the experiences of the soldiers who will perform the play. They will play themselves re-imagined”. Oh dear, I thought, can this work? Will the potholes of non-professional actors in this play-as-therapy in exploring the transition of life upon returning from military zones become a trench we are all destined to fall into?
In the first ten minutes I thought that potentially the answer to that question was ‘yes’, especially when one performer could only read his lines off the clipboard and declaim them out into the audience. Have we asked too much of them? I mean how intimidating is it performing on the Sydney Theatre stage in front of hundreds of mostly regular theatre-goers? Terrifying, I would think.
And then, as the vehicle warmed up, this well written and structured play of Keene’s, directed by Stephen Rayne, complete with humour, drama and tension in all its vignettes fell into place and this rough diamond was a breath of fresh air. It is authentic and faithful in its voices and stories and more than that- it’s part catharsis, part educational and enlightenment and always an engaging piece of theatre. Keene and Rayne have perfectly captured the action in bite size, non-linear chunks and understood the rhythm and pace in which to express each moment and experience on stage.
Contrast and collaboration lies at the crux of ‘The Long Way Home’. Not only is there the mix of professional actors with military performers but there is the world of the child’s perspective of war and its reality, of monologues juxtaposed with the chorus of ghosts, with the aural assault of heavy metal to the stony silence of isolation, of imagination and reality, of the numbness and nightmares and of humour with drama. Keene and Rayne with the ensemble worked together throughout the process: interviewing, workshopping, and improvising until it was 'owned' by all in it.
I want to commend each and every performer in this show for making me care about the plight of the returned soldier, especially the two men taking on roles of our protagonists, Tim Loch and Craig Hancock. I want to commend our professionals for creating roles that perfectly complemented these voices. Tahki Saul’s series of lectures on understanding army jargon and the chain of command were some of the most delightful moments on stage and I could hear those with any military experience almost jump out of their seats with glee at the expertly delivered satire.
Technically this play wheels in and out of the space like the narrative itself and the brief video excerpts filmed and designed by David Bergman added another layer of theatrical authenticity. Renee Mulder’s use of the screens and projections, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Steve Francis’ sound and compositions made sure this play had an injection of lightness that could quickly be buried in the shadows of secrecy and noise.
I found the power of this play snuck up on me so by the time I got to the last moments I was genuinely touched by the journey that had unfolded. The homecoming stories of a life we can only but imagine have become part of a contemporary public theatrical expression in ‘The Long Way Home’ and reminds us that theatre is more than a staging of ideas. It is the medium for a discovery of worlds unknown that we can now share that resonate our past, present and future experiences and understanding.
This is community theatre at its best and I am privileged to have seen it and I hope you can too.