Leaving Vietnam review: The Unheard Tale
**** 4 STARS
Tucked away in the corner of South East London in an abandoned Church turned warehouse turned theatre space, otherwise known as an unsuspecting location to experience a great piece of theatre. Leaving Vietnam (written and performed by Richard Vergette), performed at The Pen Theatre, puts into question what it means to try and remain an "honorable" man whilst struggling to assimilate back into a society that has left you behind.
When a retired war veteran, Jimmy, starts reflecting on his time spent in the Vietnam war, the horror he experienced runs deeper than the bloodshed. As he reflects on his years spent filled with bittersweet memories on the field, it is clear that his desensitisation happened years ago; the description of the distressing scenes of cruelty and suffering that left a bitter taste in the audience's mouth, Jimmy's overexposure to the events render him able to narrate his life with a sense of removed emotion. It's interesting because whenever I sit and listen to my parents and grandparents recounting stories from their past, some of these tales are horrifying and ones I cannot imagine experiencing in today's day and age. However there is always a glimmer of nostalgia in their eyes, as if to say "I know things were bad but it was just how it was back then". Leaving Vietnam is chronicled in a very similar fashion and from the outset it is very clear that play is a passion project, one that Vergette holds dear to his heart. A play about the horrors of war is never a pleasant watch and in many ways this play is uncomfortable. But it's not meant to be comfortable.
Leaving Vietnam starts off slow, similar to when you get caught on the tube chatting away to the retired gentleman who has stories for days on his past. And of course these stories are exaggerated for theatrical effect but you take them with a pinch of salt anyway because he's probably just hankering for human interaction. From one sentence to the next they don't match up but you're too polite to call him out on his unreliable narration, but amidst the malleable tales there is something very real, something very valuable in the experiences shared. Vergette lulls the audience into a false sense of comfort, he's just a guy tinkering away in his garage telling us about "the good old days". Oh how wrong I was. Vergette's writing, his ability to tell a story, his ability to hold the audience's attention is quite something. Now my knowledge of the Vietnam War doesn't extend further than a brief watch of In The Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1969) at University and a couple of A Level essays but I left Leaving Vietnam with a hunger for more on Jimmy's story.
Vergette invites the audience to consider an alternative perspective, from the view of the actual soldiers. He's a flawed man, he comes with prejudice and racism, his language is uncomfortable and brash. He's a disinterested husband suffering from the dismal, insidious effects of PTSD, and apathetic to a society that welcomed soldiers fall from grace just as quickly as they held them up on a pedestal. Vergette is brilliant, committed and unflinching in his delivery of the portrayal of a man left frozen in time.
Staged with minimal design, it works for the small space however the absense of a soundtrack and voiceovers is felt in this play. Especially to try and place the audience back in time to the '50s to really get a feel of a different generation and being stuck despite time moving on. To show how not only was Jimmy expected to fight for his country, but the fight never really ends. Jimmy is fighting something it seem's he has already lost and whilst he clambers to reclaim his humanity, he is facing a severe case of disillusionment whilst floating in the confines of his own bigotry. Vergette makes some very strong points about the medias exploitation of US soldiers and how this in part lead to Jimmy's disillusionment. There are some fabulous one liners in the play that really emphasise Jimmy's older and wiser sensibility. At the end of it, Jimmy is a man trying to right his wrongs whilst also coming to terms with the wrong that was commited to him. Not an easy watch but one that I would highly reccomned. Leaving Vietnam will be showing on the 5th December at Park Street Hull Performing Arts Centre. Get tickets here: https://www.parkstreethull.co.uk/whats-on/
Written and performed by Richard Vergette
Directed by Andrew Pearson
Assistant Director - Dave MacCready
Producer - Andy Jordan Productions
Music by Don Hill
Photographer Jane Hobson