‘A Bright and Shining Lie’ was how writer Neil Sheehan referred to the forty-year involvement of America in the conflict in Vietnam, and this view has formed the basis of a new one man show by Richard Vergette, premiered at the Kings Arms, Salford for the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival over two consecutive nights.
Vergette creates the character of Jimmy Vandenberg, an ageing mechanic in a decaying suburb of Detroit, who fixes classic automobiles following his retirement from the local Ford factory in Dearborn. Jimmy is bitter with the world, a bitterness that has its roots in his decision as a 21-year-old to enlist as a US Marine and fight for his country in Vietnam, the scenes he witnessed there having a marked effect on the course of the rest of his life. Vergette is alone onstage for the hour long performance, clad in an oily boiler suit and with minimal props, he highlights the hypocrisy and futility of the war in a way that echoes US involvement in the recent Afghan conflict with chilling similarity. The detailed research which has gone into the writing is evident (I detected Ken Burns masterful documentary series as a source), even though the language of a former serving Marine would have been more salty than was displayed throughout. Nevertheless, the loss of the American dream is explored in a way that is reminiscent of Arthur Miller, with Jimmy reminiscent of a 21st century Willy Loman in his style and portrayal, his personal experience mirroring the changes in American society in the past half decade.
My main questions going into this piece were ‘Why Vietnam?’ ‘Why now?’. Both were answered in the final ten minutes with the link between the decline of the American dream, loss of US hegemony in the world order, racial tensions and the rise of Trumpism in American politics, being cleverly woven into the personal narrative of Jimmy.
This piece was originally set to be premiered in 2020, being both the 45th anniversary of the end of US involvement in Vietnam and a US election year, the resulting delay has made the piece feel much less current. The world of Trump and anything pre-Covid now feels like a foreign country and despite being well written and a strong acting performance by Vergette, I fear that ‘Leaving Vietnam’ is another victim of the pandemic, its resonance dissipated by the passing of events.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 5th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★