Nanjing Night Net

Illawarra Performing Arts Centre

From March 5-8

A confronting new play about returning home from war stars a number of Australian veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Some of the 17 Australian Defence Force personnel and four actors during a workshop at the Sydney Theatre Company for The Long Way Home. Picture: KATE GERAGHTY

The play draws on stories from men and women who have returned from combat zones. Picture: TAMARA DEAN

Warwick Young and Will Bailey in the Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s production‚ The Long Way Home. Picture: LISA TOMASETTI

Lance Corporal Craig Hancock, Sergeant Sarah Webster and Lance Corporal James Duncan. Picture: RACHEL MURDOLO

In a rehearsal room at the Sydney Theatre Company, two performers are deep into a scene between a soldier and his wife.

He is a muscular young man, hair crew-cut. He looks at the floor. He chews gum and fidgets. She looks at him intensely.

“Nothing has changed,” she says, reassuringly. “I haven’t changed.”

“I have!” he replies. “When I look in the mirror, you know what I see? F— all. That’s all I’m good for, f— all. I am my job. Now there’s no job.”

The man is not playing a soldier. He is one. Off stage he is Lance Corporal Craig Hancock. On stage, his voice betrays an amount of stress.

Actress Emma Jackson gives him her unrelenting focus. Hancock breaks the contact and walks away.

“The impulse to walk off is very good,” British director Stephen Rayne says, getting out of his chair.

“Don’t look at her. You’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to eyeball her because she might start the weepy thing’.”

They all make a note in their scripts. “Go on,” Rayne says.

“I’m useless. A blank f—ing space,” Hancock continues.

“But you’re home now,” Jackson says, touching his arm lightly. He flinches. He isn’t acting. He’s reacting.

There are nods of understanding around the room. For many soldiers, coming home is harder than heading off to a conflict zone.

“People don’t know that,” says Private Will Bailey, 26, who is recovering after being shot in the ankle during service in Afghanistan.

“Watching family scenes like that really freaks me out.

“We expect to get shot or blown up. That’s in your mind; you’re good to go on that. But you come home and you don’t expect to act the way you do. You think you’re still the same dude but you’re not.

“Your world is completely different. For me, coming home was harder than getting shot.”

Hancock, 27, and Bailey are two of 13 Australian Defence Force personnel working with four actors in The Long Way Home, a new play by Daniel Keene.

The play draws on dozens of harrowing personal stories from men and women who have returned from combat zones or humanitarian relief operations with physical and/or psychological injuries.

The production is a historic first-time collaboration between the Sydney Theatre Company and the ADF. None of the soldiers have performed on stage before. Many have never set foot inside a theatre before now.

“Most soldiers are very reserved people. We keep our cards close to our chests. But in this you need to expose something of yourself,” says Corporal Tim Loch, 27.

A combat engineer, Loch’s tour of duty in Afghanistan came to a violent end when the Bushmaster he was commanding was destroyed by an improvised explosive device (IED), more commonly known as a roadside bomb.

His right heel was crushed, his femur snapped. He also suffered a severely dislocated right shoulder and lacerations to his face.

“The acting is tricky but I’m getting better at it,” Loch smiles.

“I’m told my voice sticks in the back of my throat so I’m learning to throw it forward.”

The Long Way Home was initiated after General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, saw Rayne’s British play about returned soldiers, The Two Worlds of Charlie F, in London in 2012.

Its aim was to help the soldiers come to terms with very serious injuries through what Rayne calls “exposure therapy”, and to offer audiences a rare insight into the inner worlds of returning soldiers.

The Long Way Home is a somewhat different play to Charlie F, Rayne says, but its reasons for being are much the same.

“In the British play we had a lot of song and dance and direct address from the soldiers and that made things rather easier for them,” he says.

“The Long Way Home is a more personal, intimate and domestic play. We’re talking about the intimate lives of the soldiers, the moments when they are most exposed.

“Daniel has written a play that would be hard for professional actors to do, let alone soldiers.

“They have to play scenes with real emotional honesty and depth with real dramatic arcs to them. It’s a big ask.”

In 30 or so scenes, The Long Way Home tells the stories of the stresses felt by soldiers forced by their injuries to quit their careers.

Those scenes are fictional but elements of them are common to all participating in the project.

Another strand of the narrative is rooted in the experience of one particular veteran, Lance Corporal Gary Wilson, 32, who survived the crash of his Blackhawk helicopter in Northern Kandahar Province.

“Gary has terrible physical injuries and a degree of brain damage and we follow him along his recovery path,” Rayne says.

“By the end of the play he finds his voice – which is actually what happened to Gary because after the accident he didn’t regain consciousness for several weeks and no-one knew if he would be able to speak again or move again.”

The early days in the workshop process that inspired Keene’s script was a challenge for the soldiers and the actors.

Worlds didn’t collide but they often rubbed against each other uncomfortably, recalls actor Tahki Saul.

“We were throwing balls around making sounds and [the soldiers] were just looking at us thinking, ‘Is this really what you do for a job?’ All you can say is, ‘Yep, that’s right. Someone actually pays us for this.”‘

The rehearsal process has been quick and intense. Each day, the soldiers must present to nurse Lieutenant Dianne Hutchinson for Sick Parade, who asks them about any health or well-being issues they may have had overnight.

Some need pain-killing prescriptions filled or time off for remedial therapy or a blood transfusion. The biggest problem is the lack of sleep.

“There are plenty of people here who can’t sleep at all,” Loch says.

“But we’re all helping each other. I can have an in-depth conversation with someone about the best shoe to wear when your foot is buggered.

“Or we talk about how we’re feeling about stuff. Most of us, due to our injuries, can’t do the job we’ve wanted to do since we were kids.

“For me, that’s the hardest bit, and pretty much everyone is the same. We have to find a new way to live and that is definitely a challenge.”

Private Patrick Hayes, 26, is among the most quietly spoken and guarded of the group. He was serving in Afghanistan when he “lost a mate and their interpreter”.

He wasn’t physically injured but he lives with acute post traumatic stress disorder. He doesn’t want to talk about the incident in detail.

“I’m just reliving the memories all the time,” he says.

“I’m here for the exposure therapy but some things just don’t change.”

Hayes says exposure therapy is like “watching the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and then a friend says, ‘Let’s watch it again’. Your immediate reaction is to withdraw but we can’t withdraw, it just keeps happening in your mind. But if you keep exposing yourself, you try to take the fear from it until it becomes a bit more tame.”

Hayes is one of the few who tells his own personal story in the play, as a monologue. “It’s not exactly my story to tell because there was a lot of us involved in the incident. I just want to get it right, for them.”

Rayne hopes audiences will gain some deeper insight into soldiers’ lives and problems.

“I think this is the most honest and unvarnished view of what it’s like to be a soldier in the ADF because these are their stories, their lives and their feelings,” Rayne says.

“Trying to get these soldiers to act stories they couldn’t believe in or identify with would almost be impossible, but if the material they are playing is in some way analogous to or similar to their own experience, then what they do transcends acting.

“They are not pretending, they are being. They know what they are talking about.”

Related reading

Ex-Unanderra resident collaborates on the Long Way Home

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.