We all remember the images. Hanoi Jane, Jane Fonda, smiling, touring North Vietnam, visiting troops, preaching love and peace.
Fonda, the daughter of a decorated war veteran, the actor, Henry, was vilified in her native America for what was seen as naive meddling in a war that she knew nothing about.
The 1970s is a long time ago but, in light of last week’s Chilcot Report, the gung ho actions of Tony Blair in sending Uk troops to Iraq isn’t so different to Richard Nixon’s enthusiasm in sending more than 58,000 US soldiers to their deaths in a war that had little to do with them or their country.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, for us in England, we can look on the Vietnam War with a certain objectivity.
Nixon, fearing a Commie invasion, unilaterally took the decision to go to war. Hell, at one point he was telling Henry Kissinger to nuke the place.
We’re so used to Americans wearing the white stetsons, being the heroes, saving the world. It’s hard to recognise that often they’re the bad guys.
Their cops kill unarmed black men, their soldiers annihilate whole villages with napalm, their state troopers shoot protesting students waving flowers and calling for peace.
Terry Jastrow’sThe Trial of Jane Fonda, which opened last night at London’s Park Theatre, is 95 minutes of powderkeg drama starring his wife, award-winning Hollywood actress, Anne Archer.
Angry, confrontational, deeply political and controversial, The Trial of Jane Fonda isn’t a fair hearing but more a wannabe lynching.
I don’t know if it’s based entirely on real facts but, if it is, then you have to admire Fonda’s courage at being willing to face her fiercest critics.
There’s no doubt that Jastrow formed his play on an incident in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1988 when bitter demonstrations by veterans halted filming on a movie co-starring Fonda and Robert De Niro.
Determined to stop her past dictating her future, Jane requested a meeting and went to face a room full of angry, very patriotic, men for whom the war still raged.
On stage we meet six men, five of who served in ‘Nam and one, bar-owner Joe (Paul Herzberg), who was a WWII veteran.
The group is consumed with hatred. She betrayed her country, the thousands of men fighting out there. She was a Commie..there’s no end to their vitriol.
The meeting is being chaired by a local preacher who has a tough time controlling the enraged group. Even now, 16 years after they returned home, they are unable to mask their outrage.
Archer, actually looking and sounding nothing like Jane Fonda (but she is an American), walks in. The shouting, jostling, chair-throwing, stops and they fall silent.
From then on Fonda faces her toughest battle as she tries to defuse the anger and explain, with the aid of real video footage, her version about what really happened, what was propaganda and what was invented.
It’s hugely combative. The ferociousness of the men’s hostility is daunting yet she keeps her cool.
Politically Jastrow’s play debunks a lot of the myths surrounding Jane’s visit to Vietnam. There was a huge movement in the US to pull out of the conflict with many families reluctant to let their sons go to war and many young men desperate to avoid the draft.
But the playwright has managed to assemble five who bucked the trend – Christien Anholt’s gum-chewing bond trader Buzzy Banks; lawyer Larry (Alex Gaumond); hothead roughneck Tommy Lee (Mark Rose); wheelchair-bound former basketball player Reggie (Ako Mitchell) and Martin Fisher’s the Reverend John Clarke.
Collective guilt and collective anger aside, these men were happy to answer the call to fight. They did their duty and, as far as they’re concerned, Fonda stuck a finger up at their efforts.
The men robustly declare their contempt. None are overly fleshed out but that’s okay because it’s who and what they represent, a cherry-picked slice of American manhood, circa 1969, that’s important.
We hear harrowing stories from both sides. How Reggie lost a leg, and how the others lost comrades.
The men’s performances are all incendiary and very physical. Anholt’s scuffle with Mark Rose looks particularly realistic. Archer, playing a Hollywood actress, isn’t a stretch but she gives an accomplished turn as the passionate peace campaigner
There’s no judge or jury but, instead, compelling arguments from both sides. I may think differently, if I was an American watching this, but as a Brit outsider who was just a toddler when the My Lai Massacre took place, I can understand Jane’s perspective.
A final mention for the play’s impressive set from designer Sean Cavanagh . The backdrop is a huge map of America that is inscribed with the name and date of every battle and war in the 20th century. Before the show started, as celebrity guests including Stephanie Powers, Imelda Staunton and her husband Jim Carter, and Miriam Margolyes took their seats, it made fascinating reading.
“What did we accomplish?” asks Larry. “It was a waste of time, energy, money and lives. We let the American people down. We couldn’t get the job done.”
“That was the tragedy,” says Anne Archer’s Fonda. “It was a war that couldn’t be won.”
The Trial of Jane Fonda runs at the Park Theatre until August 20.
The Trial of Jane Fonda
Explosive performances from a cast of seven makes The Trial of Jane Fonda a compelling, thought-provoking and thrilling drama.