Long Tan sets out with the lofty aim of dragging the audience into the heat and horror of the Vietnam War and the Battle of Long Tan. While it has heart and potential, it has not quite reached its destination.
The audience enters Space Theatre and takes their seats in two opposing bleachers separated by the stage (a sort of catwalk in the middle of the space). We are asked to wear headphones, and adjust them based on the ‘east’ and ‘west’ sides of the stage. Phones must be off or on airplane mode, because even a silent text could send that frustrating ‘brrrp brp brp’ noise through someone’s ears. Short of emergency exits being pointed out, it feels a bit like the safety routine on a flight. Anyway, time for take-off. We and the players are on our way to Long Tan.
This is the world premiere of Verity Laughton’s Long Tan, a play based on interviews with veterans of that famous battle, plus their friends and family. We follow Delta Company from their training to building a base on a rubber plantation, to the unanticipated and brutally fought battle, leaving all with scars to bear. There are asides throughout that remind us of the impact the complicated Vietnam War had on participants from all sides.
Mémé Thorne as a Vietnamese civilian
This certainly is an important story to tell and discussion to have, considering the way those veterans’ sacrifices in an unpopular war were maligned, even forgotten for decades. For their pain to receive recognition 50 years on is crucial to our national consciousness and, one hopes, part of a normalisation of dialogue around how we treat our returned veterans.
Long Tan smartly avoids jingoistic representations of Australia’s participation in the war, and impressively manages to avoid the well-trodden path of American film clichés inherent in ‘Nam stories. Yet, it still has a cinematic element to it. The scenes of conflict, where bullets whiz above soldiers’ heads and lives are lost in a split second are some of the most arresting moments in the show.
The 12-strong mostly-male cast does well to convey the innocence, fear and courage of these conscripts and soldiers too. Chris Pitman as the resolute Harry Smith and Patrick Graham as the charming Jack Kirby are our stand out players, while Stuart Fong and Mémé Thorne’s portrayal of loss on the Vietnamese civilian side in a spine-tingling scene of guttural grief will not be forgotten quickly.
Chris Pitman as Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith
There are, however, occasionally flubbed lines and technical difficulties as the play goes on. These issues must be attributed to stylistic choices in Laughton’s script and Chris Drummond’s direction. The choice to have multiple actors overlap identical lines seems an unnecessary recipe for incongruity throughout the show, and while the use of headphones is a novel choice it sometimes leaves the audience confused as to where the action is coming from on stage, and its full binaural potential is never reached.
Audience members unfamiliar with the Battle of Long Tan and the complexities of military lingo and organisation might feel themselves lost at points in this story, too. The show’s lengthy exposition at the outset serves to head off some of this confusion, but it is hard to fully comprehend. Some pre-show research on the battle, or a studious reading of the program will help the more naïve audience members. Those with a solid military history or background will be right at home in this theatre of war.
All said, Long Tan feels like a work in progress. Once loose threads are trimmed or sewn back into this sprawling tapestry, the show should become a more moving portrait of the horrific human impact of the Vietnam War.
Long Tan continues at the Space Theatre until Saturday, April 8
Photography: Kate Pardey