Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Richard Vergette: Leaving Vietnam

By | Published on Friday 10 March 2023

Beginning a run at the Park Theatre this week is ‘Leaving Vietnam’, a show that we saw and loved at the 2022 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, so we already know we can definitely recommend it. 

However, I also thought it would be good to find out a bit more about the play and its creator, ahead of its London run.

As you might well guess from its title, it’s about a Vietnam War veteran who is still struggling with its after effects in old age.  It’s the work of Richard Vergette, who also performs the play.

I spoke to him ahead of opening night.  

CM: Can you start by telling us about the content of ‘Leaving Vietnam’? Whose story does it tell? 
RV: It tells the story of Jimmy Vandenberg – a Michigan car worker who joins the Marines and serves in Vietnam. In his old age he’s still trying to make sense of what he went through, his sacrifice and his subsequent disillusionment and feelings of failure. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
RV: Principally the dehumanising impact of war on men. It’s about sacrifice and loyalty and how the voiceless and disillusioned may find a haven in political extremes. Populism can be intoxicating to those who feel abandoned and dislocated.

CM: What made you decide to write a play about this? What was the inspiration behind it? 
RV: I watched ‘The Vietnam War’ – a documentary series by Ken Burns. It was a long, thorough and complex piece of television.

What struck me about it was how much of a working man’s war Vietnam was. If you were in college or well connected you could usually find a way to get out of it. But what also struck me was the palpable anger of the veterans who still felt let down by a government who knew the war couldn’t be won.

I felt there were echoes in the anger and disillusionment that were present in the people drawn to the MAGA campaigns of Trump in 2016 and 2020, and also in our own referendum of 2016. People who felt marginalised and voiceless now finding a platform for their protest.

CM: Can you tell us about the creative process of putting the piece together? Did you do a lot of research? 
RV: Yes! From the documentary, I then read around the war with books by Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes – both of whom had served and both of whom had contributed to the Ken Burns series.

I also read sections of Christian Appy’s massive work on Vietnam and also Neil Sheehan’s ‘A Bright Shining Lie’.

In creating Jimmy however, I needed to find out a little bit about the Ford motor company and the working practices there in the 1960s. Getting Jimmy to be a three dimensional character was essential to the process. 

CM: Did you always plan to perform it yourself? 
RV: Yes! I don’t really act much apart from stuff I create for myself. However, if the show takes off and we can get it on in New York I’d be perfectly happy to surrender the role to Ed Harris or Tom Hanks!

CM: How does being the writer of the play affect your work as the performer – and your relationship with your director?
RV: I’m always happy to hand the script over and work with a director on what aspects of a script work and what don’t.

Writing for myself is good because I tend to speak the lines out loud when I’m writing and I know what my vocal range is and how I’ll interpret it.

CM: We loved the show when we saw it in Edinburgh, how did that run go from your perspective? 
RV: Really well! I was blown away by some of the responses we got and some of the reviews. The play is an emotional piece of work and it’s so gratifying when you can see that it has had an impact.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your past career and how you ended up working in the arts?
RV: I was a drama teacher for many years but, for around fifteen to 20 years, have also written ‘on the side’ as it were. And acted from time to time.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
RV: Undoubtedly having a play performed in the West End in 2013 was remarkable. ‘American Justice’ played at The Arts Theatre and was very exciting.

Having ‘Dancing Through The Shadows’ produced at Hull Truck was also very exciting. This was a play that was set in Hull during the Second World War and many people who remembered the war – in the 80s and 90s – came to see the show. Some of them coming to the theatre for the first time.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
RV: My next birthday is a big one – 60! So you tend to think of the future in terms of quality rather than quantity of time! To be honest, to keep doing what I’m doing, working on my craft and hopefully getting better and better. By the time I’m 90 I could be really getting somewhere! 

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
RV: Well I do a lot of charity work, so I’m going to be focused on my role in Rotary for a while.

However, I’ve written a draft of a play called ‘Hunt The Tiger’. It’s set in the future and tells the story of the life of the last human with Down’s Syndrome. My son has DS and I’m concerned that the development of non-invasive prenatal testing means that Down’s Syndrome could easily be a thing of the past.

The question is, would that be a good thing? I don’t think the world would be safer, kinder or healthier because we rid ourselves of a section of the human race that brings joy and inspiration.

‘Leaving Vietnam’ is on at the Park Theatre from 14 Mar-8 Apr. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.  

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