Australian playwright Daniel Keene on creating his latest play The Long Way Home, written in collaboration with soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Timor, the Solomon Islands and Somalia.
Australia has withdrawn its combat troops from Afghanistan. Their war is over. Whether or not it was worth fighting, whether or not the loss of Australian soldiers’ lives can be justified, men and women who volunteered to serve this country in that war have paid the price of that service. No one returns from war unscathed. Homecomings are never as easy or as simple as we might like to imagine. War changes those who fight it. Soldiers come home from war with memories they cannot shake, with wounds that cannot always be healed. Their wounds are not always visible and their memories may remain unspoken. But we expect them to forget, we expect them to be healed. Or perhaps that is only our profound wish. The reality is different. The reality is more difficult. The Long Way Home was written in response to and in collaboration with soldiers who have been deployed from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Timor to the Solomon Islands to Somalia. It was never going to be possible to include all of the stories I heard during the five weeks I spent with them during our initial workshop in September 2013. Our interactions ranged from one-on-one interviews to group discussions, chats during tea breaks and talking at the bar after our work for the day was done. All of these conversations fed into my process, which was to distill the experiences of these soldiers into a dramatic form. At the outset, the play’s director Stephen Rayne and I decided that we did not want to create a piece of verbatim theatre. To try to literally recreate the experiences of these men and women would be fruitless; dramatic reenactments of being under heavy fi re from the Taliban or driving over an IED or being wounded in a rocket attack are beyond the credible range of theatre. We also wanted to avoid the simply anecdotal, which reduces experience to a series of sound bites. As well as discussions and interviews, together with the soldiers we created improvisations, played theatre games and read the scenes I was writing in response to the stories I was hearing during the course of the workshop. The outcome of all of this work was to reveal the central concerns, the common experiences, the shared troubles and the ongoing struggles of the soldiers to reintegrate into civilian life after their intense experiences, in Afghanistan in particular. This work also uncovered an extraordinary sense of humour, a fierce sense of camaraderie and a steely determination. In writing The Long Way Home, I drew on all of these elements. I wanted my writing process to be as transparent as possible. I wanted it to be demystified. I told the soldiers that basically my job was like that of a cook. They would present me with the raw ingredients and I would create something out of them. My critical concern was that each of these raw ingredients would make its presence felt in the final creation. In other words, I wanted the play to be faithful to its sources, to be truthful. The test of that truthfulness was in the soldiers’ responses to the material I was writing during the workshop. I wanted to write as much as possible during that time, so that I could give it straight to the soldiers themselves while they were engaged in the process of relating and in a very real sense reliving their experiences. Their responses were direct and honest and they didn’t pull any punches. In the best sense of the word, we were collaborating. Is The Long Way Home fictional? Yes, and no. Every situation that it presents and every line of dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who will perform the play. They will play themselves re-imagined. They are bringing their reality into contact with that of their audience. The theatre is the perfect place for this kind of meeting, a place where truth and fiction can co-exist, where reality can be imagined. The Long Way Home Dunstan Playhouse Tuesday, April 1 to Saturday, April 5 statetheatrecompany.com.au Images 1. Warwick Young and Will Bailey in Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s The Long Way Home © Lisa Tomasetti 2. David Cantley, Tim Loch and Odile Le Clezio in Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s The Long Way Home © Lisa Tomasetti 3. Sarah Webster and Martin Harper in Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s The Long Way Home © Lisa Tomasetti 4. Craig Hancock and Tim Loch in Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force’s The Long Way Home © Lisa Tomasetti