Andy Jordan Productions and GM Fringe
The King's Arms, Salford
Fiction has been used by Americans to publicly express guilt at the USA’s involvement in Vietnam. Richard Vergette’s Leaving Vietnam even includes a character who makes a career out of self-lacerating memoirs of his time in the conflict.
Jimmy ‘Dutch’ Vandenberg (author and sole performer Vergette) is not that character and holds such opportunism in contempt. Jimmy is a blue-collar worker right out of a Bruce Springsteen song. Leaving Vietnam recounts his harrowing experiences in such a sympathetic manner, we come to understand, and even like, Jimmy so it is a shock when he makes a decision with which many would disagree.
Jimmy, a volunteer who fought as a marine, leaves Vietnam tormented by the feeling he has left something behind. Perhaps it is guilt at the death of a truly courageous and decent colleague, or maybe he brings back with him a festering resentment prompting him to actions that may alienate him from his family.
Although Leaving Vietnam is a monologue and includes details of disturbing actions, director Andrew Pearson opens with a warm, intimate tone. Richard Vergette makes full eye contact with the audience and could be sat in a pub chatting with friends. As the play develops, however, it becomes increasingly apparent Jimmy is struggling with his emotions. Vergette becomes prone to glancing off into the middle distance as if lost in memories he dares not reveal. Pearson downplays the harrowing incidents reported by Jimmy—the character constantly minimises his experiences—which adds to a murky, edgy atmosphere. One moment Jimmy recalls acts of violence, the next he is cracking jokes. It is hard to be sure what the character might do next.
Vergette builds a convincingly complex and damaged character. Jimmy is the archetypical blue-collar tradesman holding in low regard people who lack basic skills like car repair. He is also a decorated soldier who can barely recall his heroism—dismissively treating it as just part of his job. Yet the lingering trauma from the war is apparent in his tormented recollection of how his courage almost failed when an enemy patrol was in the vicinity.
Leaving Vietnam does not offer a simple viewpoint of the Vietnam war. Events are filtered through Jimmy’s perspective rather than a professional or medical viewpoint—post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, is not mentioned. The monologue is an attempt by an ordinary solider to make sense of not only his own actions but those of his country. A dense but completely engaging script draws out the camaraderie of the soldiers, their outrage at how their actions are regarded by people who did not have to endure their hardships and the relentless tension of the conflict.
Vergette is an excellent storyteller—a master of surprise revelations. Plot points dotted throughout Leaving Vietnam lead to a twist that is surprising but logical considering what has gone before. It would be an ideal moment to end as it even serves to make a political point: explaining the apparently extreme behaviour of Americans like Jimmy who feel undervalued. Yet Vergette is not content with a single surprise and proceeds further, offering an even more satisfactory redemptive conclusion.
Leaving Vietnam is a complex and demanding play that is a pleasure to watch.
Reviewer: David Cunningham