Printable CopyLONG TAN
State Theatre Company SA and Brink Productions
The Space
Until 08 Apr 2017

Review by Linda Edwards

One of the best-known engagements involving Australian troops during the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) was the Battle of Long Tan. On 18 August 1966, 105 Australian and 3 New Zealand soldiers of Delta Company clashed with an estimated 1500-2500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, and in a few hours of combat 18 Australians and at least 245 Vietnamese soldiers were killed and many more were wounded. The world première of the Brink Productions “Long Tan” at the Space Theatre is an immersive experience that takes the audience into that battle in a powerful and moving way.

A raised central stage is the audience’s first point of contact with the play, and the ominous darkness of the set, designed by Wendy Todd, dominates the space. The simple but effective platform is covered by shredded black rubber evocative of the rubber plantation in which the battle took place. Red boards beneath the rubber are occasionally revealed as a visual reminder of the red mud of the region and the blood of the dead and wounded on both sides.

The audience dons headphones for most of the performance, and the intimacy of the soundscape designed by Luke Smiles heightens the experience and brings us closer to the characters on stage. The audience hears in stereo swarms of mosquitoes, gunfire, exploding mortar shells, the breathing of the soldiers, and the relentless monsoon rain.

The lighting design by Chris Petridis is also exceptional, with narrow beams of light flashing across the stage and audience to simulate gunfire. A mist rises from the stage at times like steam from hot, wet ground and this adds further depth and realism. The play is not attempting to be a film on stage however—the uniforms are clean, and the Owen guns are obvious cut-outs—because realism of the battle is secondary to the emotional conflicts within and between the troops.

The ten soldiers (most of them conscripts) and a Vietnamese mother and son tell the story of the battle collectively, with much of the dialogue adapted from interview material collected by playwright Verity Laughton. The ensemble of experienced, mostly South Australian, actors is outstanding, with Chris Pitman particularly powerful as Major Harry Smith, the leader of Delta Company.

While most of the focus is on the Australian soldiers and their camaraderie, bravery, and the horrors they experienced, the effect on the lives of some of the Vietnamese is touched on, particularly in a powerful scene time-shifted to the 1980s, when one of the veterans visits the village and is confronted by a mother whose son was killed by Australians in the battle of Long Tan.

Other time shifts bring us to the present and the lifetime of remembered horrors and trauma that many of the men continue to suffer. But it isn’t all heavy going as there are plenty of light moments, and even a few “knock-knock” jokes, and a nod to Little Pattie.

An audio-visual exhibition in the foyer, “Ripples of Wartime”, adds further to the evening’s experience, as does the exhibition of portraits of the featured veterans, some of whom were in the audience on opening night. It is hard to imagine their feelings and emotions watching the play, but for this reviewer the lasting impression is a feeling of the pointlessness of war despite the gallantry and selfless courage of participants on both sides.