Q&A with Richard Vergette about his show Leaving Vietnam
In Richard Vergette’s one-man play, war veteran Jimmy Vandenberg 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’. In the wake of Trump and Brexit, Leaving Vietnam explores how the disillusioned and overlooked are attracted to the politics of populism.
Tell us about Leaving Vietnam, what’s it about and why did you write it?
Leaving Vietnam tells the story of Jimmy Vandenberg - a car worker from Michigan - who, in his youth, joins the marines and fights in Vietnam. The experience leaves him embittered and he feels abandoned by the country he served faithfully. In later life, therefore, he is drawn to the populist message of the MAGA campaign.
Why chose a Vietnam veteran rather than a veteran of the war in Iraq or Afghanistan
There is something particularly brutal about Vietnam. That's not to suggest that any war is anything less than savage but it was the first war that America lost and the veterans were treated with utter contempt. Even when the politicians knew the war was unwinnable they still sent wave after wave of men - most of them drafted - into an appalling and dehumanising situation. They then failed to rehabilitate or care for them afterwards. The humiliation of Vietnam is still felt today and , I believe, remains part of the disillusionment and toxicity of the US political scene today.
Is Jimmy based on a particular person?
No, not at all. Having read and heard a number of testimonies from veterans, a character gradually emerged in my mind. I've used some real life experiences of some of the veterans and 'given' them to Jimmy. It's significant that he comes from Michigan as this was a state that unexpectedly voted for Trump in 2016. I wanted to create a working class character who might be persuaded by the MAGA message. Vietnam was very much a working man's war. If you went to college or were reasonably well connected you could avoid the draft or have it deferred. Jimmy isn't drafted - he joins the marines because he genuinely feels it's the right thing to do. Many young patriotic men did the same. Although he's not based on any individual, I hope that Jimmy is a plausible representation of many men of his generation.
You’ve performed the show before, do you think it’s changed over time?
Yes, it's very important to keep it fresh and to revisit the piece. As I've performed it and 'tinkered' with the script it's become more fluent and better shaped. I've added some new material for the London run and I'm feeling very happy with where the script currently is.
Jimmy connects with Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan as a lot of people did, but his election was a shock. Do you think the discourse has changed because of that?
Oh yes. The unthinkable happened and it wasn't enough to write his voters off as stupid or 'deplorable' as Hillary Clinton did. It was the same in the UK with the Brexit campaign where Brexit voters were derided, in certain quarters, for being 'thick'. This makes people more entrenched in their views - you don't persuade someone to change their minds by calling them stupid. Now, irrespective of whether Trump wins in 2024 or not, the forces of populism are here. In this country while people die waiting for an ambulance our political leaders want to focus on people arriving here in small boats. Political discourse seems increasingly polarised and lacking understanding or compassion. Politicians have always articulated what they think voters want to hear, but the legacy of Trump is to legitimise prejudice.
Leaving Vietnam run at Park Theatre until 8th April https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/leaving-vietnam/about