In 2014 the Sydney Theatre Company collaborated with the Australian Defence Force to produce The Long Way Home, a play based on the experiences of, and largely starring, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. I saw the play at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne in March.
As the lights come up so do we, the audience, in a standing ovation. The Long Way Home has been a powerful performance. Next to me in the front row, a man reaches up to the stage and grasps the hand of the actor at the centre of the curtain call. “Thank you,” the man says. Actually the actor is a professional Australian soldier, a wounded professional Australian soldier, who might in some times and places be thanked for his service. But the man isn’t saying thank you for that today. Instead, I think he’s saying, “Thank you for telling my story.” The soldier is an Afghanistan veteran and the man looks as though he’s Vietnam vintage, but for all the references to Call of Duty, Generation Kill and The Hurt Locker, The Long Way Home has in many ways been a timeless story of war and homecoming. A returned serviceman of the First AIF would recognise it.
For me, the scenes between veterans Tom, Nick and their wives have been especially hard to watch. I know this is because I’m not just in the audience as a war historian, but also as a Defence Force partner: my husband Andrew, sitting on my other side, did two tours in the Middle East Area of Operations with the Royal Australian Air Force. His war and the aftermath of it, and my experience of them both, are far removed from those we’ve seen portrayed on the stage. No time on the ground in Afghanistan, no injuries, no lasting damage. But there are things in these couples’ stories that I recognise. Not wanting to move things around the house after his departure. A certain numbness while he’s away. New and separate experiences in a life that must, of necessity, just be gotten on with.
The hardest thing to watch, though, is the final image of the production. The actors form up for an aircraft ‘ramp ceremony’ that precedes a dead comrade’s final journey home. Where Andrew was, these usually occurred in the middle of the night, so that the plane would arrive home – to Canada, mostly – at a decent hour. How many of his emails began, “Up at midnight for another ramp ceremony…”? The tears that have gathered throughout the production fall freely now. Even though I write about historical war, the closest I’ve been to real war is my husband, and the closest he’s been to it is this ramp. The actor whose hand is shaken, Gary Wilson, was injured in the same incident that killed three Australian soldiers who Andrew watched go home.
The curtain call and standing ovation over, we emerge into the late Melbourne afternoon. Theatre staff on all the exits offer flyers as we go: “If you or someone you care about requires mental health support, the following services may assist you…” We don’t talk too much about the play, but later, over dinner, Andrew says, “It did change me, you know.”
We haven’t had this conversation before.
Did you see The Long Way Home? Or its British inspiration, The Two Worlds of Charlie F.? If so, what did you think?