How does a Trumper get that way?
“What is new is the populist voice that claims to represent the disaffected and politically homeless. It is brazen, unfiltered, uncompromising and direct. And in America, 70 million people voted for it in 2020.”
We peer across the Atlantic at the Trumpers, and what we see horrifies and terrifies us. And so it should.
But the Trumpers do not come from another planet. They live and breathe the same air as the rest of us. Western civilization did not just produce Einstein and Sartre and Hemingway and Jacinda Ardern; it produced big men in MAGA (Make America Great Again) baseball caps who support Donald Trump, who storm the US Parliament when he loses an election, several of them wearing T-shirts that say 6MWE (which, in case you didn’t know, stands for Six Million Wasn’t Enough.)
The triumph of Leaving Vietnam, the thoughtful and effective one man play now at the Park Theatre’s smaller space, is that it shows us these monsters in human form. What they are, we made them. They are not even necessarily wicked. It tells us where they come from, and it tells us how we could have prevented it from happening – yes, we clever folk, we metropolitan liberals.
It is written and performed by Richard Vergette, and I am amazed that I have not heard of him before. Though he is not a young man, I expect to hear more of him, because this play is a gem: tightly written and controlled so that it keeps you watching and caring for every second, it makes its point with devastating accuracy, and Vergette performs it with an extraordinary delicacy of touch.
And what it tells us is terrifyingly simple. America created the Trumpers when it sent a generation of young men to fight in Vietnam, just as fascism in the 1930s came out of the horrors of the trenches in the Flanders mud. In Britain, perhaps the triumph of the xenophobic right comes out of the war in Iraq.
Vergette plays Jimmy Van Den Bergh, sometimes known as Dutch, who makes a living repairing cars and is very good at it, and proud of his craftsmanship, which the world doesn’t seem to value.
He’s a good man. He loves his wife, who, we discover late in the play, is black, and their child, though the child is biologically another man’s daughter, and that man, unlike Jimmy, went to college and did not fight in Vietnam.
Jimmy is an ex marine. “I hated the Vietcong. I just wanted to kill as many as I could” he says in a matter of fact tone, then adds: “I need my hate.” He stood outside a house where some of his comrades were gang-banging a young Vietnamese girl and he thought “what the hell” and started to go in, but a friend put a hand on his shoulder and told him that once embarked on that path, you were lost. He watched the same friend sliced in two by a bomb.
Vergette leads us, carefully and sensitively, through the life of this troubled man, and we grow to care about him, and the moment he puts on his MAGA baseball cap feels like an old friend suddenly appearing in jackboots and a swastika. But to Jimmy, it’s natural, it’s comforting. He’s tired of feeling dumb, he says. Tired of following what the bright people know. The MAGAS hat means a country that looks after you and me.
For Jimmy, there’s redemption, of a sort. That’s not so for all of them. He knows that.
For just under an hour (there is no interval) the audience in the smaller of the Park’s two theatres listened attentively to this one voice, cared about what happened to the man, and went away with an insight into what has made what is perhaps the most dangerous and terrible political movement of our time. You can’t ask much more of a night in the theatre than that.
Written and performed by Richard Vergette
Directed by Andy Jordan, Andrew Pearson
Director: Andy Jordan, Andrew Pearson
Composer: Don Hill
Lighting Designer: Chris Corner
Running Time: One hour 10 minutes without an interval
Booking to 8th April 2023
The Park Theatre
London N4 3JP
Tube: Finsbury Park
Reviewed by Francis Beckett
at the Park Theatre
on 20th March 2023