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Rehearsal, Long Tan, BRINK/State Theatre Company of SA Rehearsal, Long Tan, BRINK/State Theatre Company of SA
photo Kate Pardey

The Battle of Long Tan lasted just a few hours and yet it has, in the 50 years since it was fought, acquired the force of myth. It was Australia’s most costly engagement of the Vietnam War. For 105 men from 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and three soldiers from New Zealand’s 161 Field Battery, the afternoon of 18 August 1966 was one of bitter struggle against the odds; for others, it was a rare success that salvaged a moment of triumph—albeit at the price of 18 Australian and at least 245 Vietnamese dead—from a profoundly divisive war.

Presented by Brink Productions in association with State Theatre Company of SA and receiving its world premiere in Adelaide this month, Long Tan explores the battle’s human dimension and the effects of trauma on memory and testimony.

Combining Verity Laughton’s "semi-verbatim" script with Luke Smiles' immersive sound design, the work is being presented alongside Malcolm McKinnon's audio-video exhibition, Ripples of Wartime, which documents the stories of veterans, refugees, doctors and family members of those who fought. I spoke to Laughton on the phone as the production entered its fourth week of rehearsal.

Given that it happened 50 years ago, and that Australia is engaged in current conflicts worthy of debate, why did you want to write about the battle of Long Tan now?

I guess it’s partly a function of my age. I was young when the Vietnam War was a defining and polarising event of my generation and it still seems to me as if there is quite a lot of unfinished business about it. It was a war that people felt violently about. It’s clear to me from the couple of public events I’ve done about this production that it remains a very loaded subject for many people. There’s a quote from one of the people who was interviewed for the foyer exhibition that sums it up: “Everyone thought they were right and everyone suffered." There’s the feeling that after 50 years it’s time for a reckoning. Maybe after this period of time has elapsed it’s easier for people to come back and look at the 360 degrees of it with more human eyes.

And I guess one of the things that interested me about Long Tan is that it was in the nature of a charismatic event, a constellating event that by itself was so extreme and so extraordinary that it has the potential to become a point of national myth, in the same way that Gallipoli has—like a keyhole into the culture. And so it seemed to me worthwhile, while these veterans are still alive, to look back on an event the intensity of which most of us never go near in our whole lives and that has shaped them forever.

There’s a bit of a perception that Long Tan is still kind of under-considered in the roll call of significant Australian battles. At the same time there is, as you say, a certain mythology that’s grown up around the narrative of Australians winning this ferocious battle even though they were greatly outgunned and outnumbered. How did you approach engaging with those layers of mythology?

I think that aspect of the Long Tan 'story,' for want of a better word, has come about because it was a very short, extremely intense battle. There were other engagements in Vietnam that went on for several days. Long Tan took, basically, the better part of an afternoon to be fought. But it was of such intensity. The Australians should have been overwhelmed. They should have been wiped out. And yet there were a whole series of small twists of fate that made a difference, like the spacing of the Australian soldiers—which made the North Vietnamese think there were more of them than there really were—and the fact that the rain came in, creating a curtain of mist and mud over the entire battleground, hampering everybody but providing a layer of cover for the Australians. [The Australians were also advantaged by air and artillery support. Eds]

Chris Drummond (r) & cast, rehearsal Long Tan, BRINK/State Theatre Company of SA Chris Drummond (r) & cast, rehearsal Long Tan, BRINK/State Theatre Company of SA
photo Kate Pardey

Let’s talk about the form of the work, which is described as "semi-verbatim." I’m interested in what that means. Can you also talk about the audio-visual aspects of the work and the decision, which I assume you took with the director Chris Drummond, to create an immersive experience for the audience.

I set out to write a verbatim piece with absolutely every word coming from the interviews I did with the veterans and their families and some of the Vietnamese people too. But I think any verbatim piece will always be massaged slightly in the choosing of which bits you use, what structure you put them in and all the rest. So there’s no such thing as a seamlessly verbatim piece. If you think of David Hare's play Stuff Happens (2004), he interpolated verbatim material with possible but imagined material. So my interest was partly in telling the story of the battle and partly in putting it in a human context, which, in my terminology, means accessing an eye view of eternity. So, for example, after I’d finished interviewing the veterans about what happened to them before and during the battle, I asked them questions like “What is a leader?”, “What is a soldier?”, “What is a battle?” Their answers gave a sort of philosophical underpinning that, in the end, I only used in two of the scenes, but is there as a kind of bedrock for the rest. I wanted to know what it was like for these particular people, in this particular time, in this particular situation. What it would feel like to be them?

The audio component was a decision that Chris made. Brink came on board at about draft three and we had a couple of workshops. For much of the period we were thinking of it in terms of something like an oratorio because we didn’t think we’d have the money to do a fully-staged version so it was going to be actors plus scripts and a strong emphasis on sound. Then, at a certain point, Chris made a leap into deciding that it was going to be an immersive sound experience using headphones. And I guess I hadn’t written it that way but because I had been keeping in mind the oratorio idea, and because I actually think that verbatim material lends itself to a kind of choral presentation—I’d been through that with Red Cross Letters [State Theatre Company of SA, 2016]—I was quite happy to go with that.

The actors are miked and the audience will have headphones with which they’ll hear the dialogue but also battles, the sounds of the jungle and military bases, and some music. There’s no voiceover in the sense of a voice telling the story—this is not a documentary. The intention, as with Red Cross Letters, is to combine the crosscurrents of many different experiences into one tightly woven whole. The audience will be asked to take their headphones off for the epilogue, where the actors, too, will be un-miked—so we go from the intensity of the immersive experience of being inside a battle, to the human one, to one of reflections immediately after the battle, which gradually become more long term and then spin out into a single moment of meta-history at the very end.

One question I often find myself asking when I approach works of art that attempt to humanise war is whether or not there’s a process or a danger of the war itself being de-politicised. What do you think? And does having a verbatim component around former Vietnamese soldiers as well kind of address that?

My take on that is that quite early on in the piece I attempt to give a quick overview of the politics behind the war. And the point of telling the stories of the human beings involved means that there is an obligation to tell the story of the so-called ‘enemy’—human beings as well. My rule of thumb was everything had to come out of the soldiers of D Company—it’s D Company that’s the protagonist, not any individual soldier—so in order to deal with the North Vietnamese side of the story, I incorporated material from my interview with a man called Terry Burstall, who has written two books about the battle of Long Tan, and who is sympathetic to the North Vietnamese point of view. And the person who has the last word in the play is a South Vietnamese villager who was also sympathetic to the North Vietnamese.

But, you see, most of the soldiers whom I talked to—and these are fairly right-wing men, they haven’t reneged on their politics—would now say that the Vietnam War was a political mistake on the part of the Australian Government. So that’s not even particularly controversial anymore, but the thing that people forget is that, at the time, in 1966, most of the Australian population was behind the commitment to Vietnam. It was only later, as the 70s rolled around, that the anti-war movement became really strong. There are all these nuances that can often get lost. I have attempted to deal with the politics of the place and the battle and the people and the time but in the context of that word again, ‘eternity.’ Human beings have been making war almost since they were apes. We’ve been attacking and dealing badly with each other for all of our biological history. This is nothing new, and I expect we’ll keep on doing it. So you have to factor in that this is what humans do. And given that this is what humans do, how can you judge it? How can you go straight to a binary of right and wrong? It’s more complex than that.

Verity Laughton Verity Laughton
photo courtesy the artist

Brink Productions and State Theatre Company of SA, Long Tan, Space Theatre, 31 March-8 April. The Ripples of Wartime installation will be open for viewing 31 March-8 April before and after performances.

RealTime issue #137 Feb-March 2017 pg.

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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