Brink Theatre Company in association with State Theatre Company and Adelaide Festival Centre. Space Theatre. 4 Apr 2017
The portrait on the poster says it all. Pure exhaustion after a great battle is shown in a digger's face spattered with the red mud of Vietnam and the gore of his mates. This is the story of Delta Company, 6RAR, and their ordeal on the 18th of August, 1966, when their patrol encountered an overwhelmingly superior size force of North Vietnamese readying to attack their base.
Director Chris Drummond and his creative team have forged an emotionally immersive theatrical experience. The audience is placed on the fringes of the field of fire by flanking a long traverse representing the rubber plantation where the fire fight took place (Wendy Todd - designer). It's surfaced with loose, black rubber chips that Barry Kosky left behind after his Saul production. The soldiers wallow in it, slip on it, and die clutching it, leaving behind an orange silhouette, like a detective's chalk outline.
Every audience member is supplied with headphones. Through these, composer and sound designer Luke Smiles invites you to hear the mosquitoes, and the explosions and gunfire, which are never nearly as loud as described in the testimonials of the diggers who were there. More importantly, though, the headphones allowed the actors to shift their technique to something in between film and live performance. Whispered dialogue was easily overlapped and audible, and allowed an intimacy disconcertingly coupled with disembodiment. Lighting designer Chris Petridis used lasers to paint a battlefield alive with dancing and deadly tracers.
Australian playwright Verity Laughton was arrested protesting against the war back in the day, and felt that she didn't ever properly acknowledge the humanity of the diggers. For this reconciliation, she interviewed some of the Long Tan fighters and their families - indeed, anybody that would talk to her about the afternoon battle - and transposed their testimony into a military drama. You really got to know these blokes and there was nothing more moving than Nic Krieg's character, Salveron, rising from the battlefield after being mortally shot and haunting the battlefield in its most violent moment. Laughton undertook a lengthy epilogue that detailed some of the trauma that the survivors and their loved ones endured in the days, weeks and years following. This assuaged a curiosity I'm sure I shared with other audience members. Further background material is available in the program, in photos of the actual warriors, and in numerous interviews that can be viewed in the theatre lobby (Malcolm McKinnon - AV exhibition).
However, the didactic explanation of the origin of the American War was unnecessary for the informed, and too rushed for the novices. Also, the two Vietnamese characters - most often a mother and son - were not always convincing except in an oddly satisfying flash forward scene mid-battle. You know what? I couldn't help think about my recent viewing of The Secret River during the Adelaide Festival, and relating these two instances of intrusive invaders.
The cast were a well-drilled ensemble. In the after-show discussion I attended, a question arose concerning the conveyance of fear. I would have thought to have seen people scared out of their wits, but I was somewhat persuaded that survival was attained by calculated training and men doing their jobs. I wasn't there and I'll never know, but this is a good example of one of the thousands of directorial choices Chris Drummond would have had to make in a brand new play.
This is a world premiere full of technical and performance complexities achieved with five weeks rehearsal, which is not enough time for the full virtuosity of the creative team and actors to be revealed. Yet, I left the theatre shaken and stirred and exhausted and amazed. There were no winners at Long Tan that day, but there was a lot of bravery.
When: 31 Mar to 8 Apr
Where: Space Theatre