With the audio-sensory production Long Tan, stories from one of the most significant Australian military encounters will be centre stage in this world premiere by Brink Productions.
The Battle of Long Tan is one of the most infamous and notable Australian military encounters, as 51 years ago 105 Australian soldiers (and three New Zealanders) clashed with around 2500 Viet Cong in the Phuoc Tuy province mud. Local playwright Verity Laughton interviewed nearly 30 people for her follow-up to the Red Cross Letters including veterans and family and friends of those who lost their lives. The afternoon battle in the rubber plantation saw 18 Australians killed as well as almost 250 North Vietnamese. Rather than just put a movie-style battle on screen, Brink’s production will be an immersive audio-sensory one, featuring 12 local actors directed by Chris Drummond.
“I think there is something about verbatim theatre that lends itself to an experience in the ear,” Laughton says. “The material is in all those voices, you want to have sense of all those voices. One of the soldiers said to me when we finished the interview, ‘God knows how you’re going to put a battle on stage’. I guess this is one way of doing that and keeping it a little bit abstract. It’s not trying to be a film on stage. That’s not going to work.”
Laughton says the afternoon battle was an event of “extraordinary intensity” and this work presented an opportunity to talk to the main players involved while they are still alive.
“I call it kind of a charismatic event because it attracts enormous interest, and a whole range of opinions and people get very attached to it,” she says. “I think it is one of those events, a bit like the myth of Ned Kelly and Gallipoli, by which we define our national consciousness. I suspect – I might be wrong – that Long Tan will be one of them.”
The playwright and poet had been working on Long Tan for three years, and follows the State Theatre Company production of her play Red Cross Letters.
“During the research for Red Cross Letters, a friend said, ‘My boss’s wife was in Vietnam with the Red Cross, you should talk to her’. So I did, this was a person who has now become a friend. She had been in Vietnam at the time and had written a terrific book and we were chatting about that, I said, ‘That’s what somebody should write a play about’, talking about Long Tan, she said, ‘You should’. Then the ball was in my court.” Laughton says she wanted to understand the infamous battle as dispassionately as possible.
“Fifty years after the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, we’ve probably come to a time of a bit of reckoning, a lot of people still feel very passionate about the positons that they took up in their youth. I think it was time to look at all that again. Just noticing the reactions people have had from my generation when I’ve said that I’m working on this play, it’s [the Vietnam War] obviously still polarising. Maybe it’s a time of reassessment in the light of 50 years in the development of knowledge. The other thing is, as you get older, your point of view changes. You’re less involved with the rights and wrongs and more involved in the humanity of an event or situation. No-one’s to blame and no-one’s innocent – it’s more complex than that.”
With Long Tan, Laughton wanted to avoid glamourising the situation.
“One of the tasks in any writing exercise is to watch the tone of the piece,” she says. “We’re making a piece about something that is grim, sad and overwhelming. It does have lighter moments but that everybody has their own subjective truths, and you’ll get a different version of the battle from everybody you speak to; given that, we stayed true to the fierceness and the gritty reality of fighting.”
Through talking to the veterans, Laughton says the one thing they all wanted to stress was the value of mateship: “even the ones who want nothing to do with the army and so on; they still stress the mateship that they found through that experience, which is very interesting.”
Long Tan also focusses on the after-effects of war.
“Some survive it better than others but there’s a cost for everyone,” Laughton says. “They’ve paid that cost. Their families have paid that cost and the North and South Vietnamese have paid that cost. It’s ongoing, and it takes generations to come to terms with. I don’t think we can be casual about it. I don’t think there are easy answers. While it’s uncomfortable to think about – we need to.”
Friday, March 31 to Saturday, April 8
Photography: Kate Pardey