We spoke to Richard Vergette, writer and performer of Leaving Vietnam. Richard plays a war veteran who feels ignored and alienated by the country he has faithfully served, and finds a home for his simmering resentment in Trump’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’.
What’s Leaving Vietnam about?
Leaving Vietnam tells the story of Jimmy Vandenberg, a Michigan car worker who joins the marines and serves in Vietnam. His sense of disillusionment and betrayal leads him to feel a connection with the Make America Great Again campaign of Trump. However, his newfound political allegiances cause a wedge to come between him and his wife.
What inspired the show?
Principally, watching the series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. The testimonies of all the witnesses were incredibly powerful, but there was a palpable anger and sense of bitterness still in the words of the veterans. They had given their best in an unwinnable and ultimately unjust war. I felt that sense of abandonment and dislocation was apparent during the Trump campaigns of 2016 and 2020 and our referendum in 2016.
Is it about American populist politics, or do you think it speaks to a more global problem?
Oh definitely a more global problem. The setting may be American but populism is a scourge in politics globally. Bolsinaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary and, to some extent, Johnson and his successors in this country all have played the populist game. I’m answering these questions on a day when teachers, doctors and tube drivers are on strike. and yet what is the defining political issue of the moment? Gary Linneker and ‘Stop the boats’. The way in which politicians and media play to people’s fears and prejudices isn’t new but it is more extreme and more visceral than at any time I can remember.
When the show was in Edinburgh, Boris Johnson was still Prime Minister, do you think audiences will view the show differently now than in Summer 2022?
That’s a good question. If anything those issues have become more not less pronounced. Interestingly Truss tried to play the populist right wing tax cut card and lasted all of 7 weeks. The right wing media descended on Gary Linneker for his tweet comparing the language of the new asylum laws to the language of 1930s Germany. When he was reinstated by the BBC, they declared that that was a betrayal of the licence payer and several Tory MPs started using the hashtag #defundthebbc! Trump may not be the political force he once was but his successors are playing his game. Ron DeSantis with his ‘war on woke’ campaign in the Florida schools is using very similar tactics. Sunak may seem to be more ‘grown up’ than Johnson but his focus on asylum seekers when it’s impossible to get an ambulance out within three hours speaks of a desire to detract from rather than address the urgent issues of the day.
What do you want audiences to take from the show?
Firstly, I want people to see the terrible dehumanising impact of war on the individual. requiring individuals to become killers and then fit into normal society is almost a bizarre and perverse requirement. Secondly, I want people to understand why someone like Jimmy – essentially a decent man – might lean towards populist politics and come across as intolerant. A number of commentators have made the point that we’ve forgotten how to disagree. Although I was a remainer I come from a 65% Brexit area in the North of England. We don’t create a fairer, more compassionate and humane society by calling each other gammon or snowflakes! Jimmy is a man who I vehemently disagree with, but I get why he does what he does. The ending is redemptive and positive and I want people to be moved by Jimmy’s story.
What’s your favourite line from the show?
Sergeant Bowker was a good man. So were we all. All good men. But the goodness only goes so deep don’t it? It’s like the peel of an orange. It don’t take much to peel the goodness away.
Leaving Vietnam is presented by Andy Jordan Productions in association with Park Theatre, at the venue until 8th April https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/leaving-vietnam