The only salient points that came to mind as I sat in the (very lovely) Park Theatre bar thinking about what little I already knew about Jane Fonda were: a) she was married at one stage to the media empire billionaire Ted Turner, and b) she has a collection of popular fitness videos. Of Fonda’s political work, I felt like Manuel in the BBC Television series ‘Fawlty Towers’: “I know nothing!” That did make this play, where her actions are not so much explored as dissected and subjected to cross-examination, absorbing and interesting in its own right. Though The Trial of Jane Fonda is not set in a courthouse and there is no presiding judge or sworn in jury, the title is still an apt summing-up of what it is.
There is a certain viewpoint about the Vietnam War – and other conflicts in which American troops have been heavily involved – that tends to be portrayed through the various Hollywood movies that are incredibly charged with pro-military undertones. My other point of reference with regards to that conflict is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the musical Miss Saigon. At least there, the Vietnamese side of the story is acknowledged insofar as there are pro-active attempts to support the women and children directly affected by the previous war effort.
It is this particular war that is the subject of this ‘trial’, which eventually came across to me as more of an attempt at ‘restorative justice’ than anything else. The stage is filled with the dates of wars, conflicts, battles and military operations from all over the world, irrespective of USA involvement. The late former Postmaster General, Tony Benn, would have been impressed by it, such was his commitment to raising awareness of the sheer number and scale of worldwide fighting.
There was something not quite credible about a group of ex-soldiers who served their country in Vietnam sticking around for quite so long to listen to the pacifist Jane Fonda (Anne Archer). It became clear very quickly that her position was so diametrically opposed to that of the other people in the room that there would be little, if any, common ground by the end of the play. “I don’t have to listen to this,” barks Joe Celano II (Paul Herzberg), who storms off, only to return a while later. His superficial explanation for returning didn’t wash with me, and I found myself as incredulous as many of the other characters, not quite understanding why he’d bothered to walk back in.
Naivety got the better of Fonda, and she ended up saying and doing things she later came to regret, and Reggie Wells (Ako Mitchell) notes the benefit (or the drawback) of hindsight, reassuring her: “We all f—k up.” In the trading of stories between Fonda and the veterans, the play becomes slightly exhausting, but there is something rather British about it considering arguments from several different perspectives.
Inviting Jane Fonda to speak to ex-military personnel is a little like asking Professor Richard Dawkins to address the General Synod of the Church of England: it is not, with the best will in the world, going to end amicably.
There is a smattering of humour sprinkled in during the proceedings, such as when Celano demands to know why people bother listening to what actors (such as Fonda) have to say; the line was intended to ask the audience in a very subtle way whether they can really believe what any character is saying, not just in this play in this theatre, but any play in any theatre, given they are all voiced by actors. Moments like that add more layers to the play and act as comic relief from the ongoing simmering tension. Archer’s Fonda adopts the air of a politician, one who says the right words but even when an apology is being given, there’s a suspicion that she is not being as sincere as her vocabulary suggests. I cannot deduce whether this is down to Archer’s delivery or the rest of the company’s palpable antagonism. It could well be a combination of the two: either way, I can’t fault the acting.
Towards the end of the play, more questions are asked than answers can be provided, and while the Reverend John Clarke (Martin Fisher), in whose church hall the meeting takes place, calls for a verdict, one is not delivered, and the play ends abruptly, unresolved. Whether or not anyone practises a faith and/or possesses a religious conviction, the priest’s closing admonition is worth pondering over: can a person expect to be forgiven if they themselves never forgive anyone?
The talking heads and ‘circle time’ approach will not suit everyone. But this is a fascinating play, with a tour de force performance from Anne Archer, whose calm and measured veneer is slowly and gradually stripped back to reveal some vulnerability in her Jane Fonda. I came away knowing a whole lot more about Fonda, about the anti-war movement, about the psyche of war veterans, and all in one act. Informative and compelling, this tight play requires some concentration to be fully appreciated, for sure, but that extra effort is generously rewarded. An interesting and ambitious production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
1972. North Vietnam: Driven to halt the slaughter of young lives, iconic movie star Jane Fonda travels to Vietnam where she is photographed laughing and clapping, astride an anti-aircraft gun, designed to shoot down American planes. Overnight the soldiers’ sexy pin-up becomes ‘Hanoi Jane’; traitor to her country and betrayer of those very young men.
1988. Waterbury, Connecticut: Bitter demonstrations by veterans halt filming on a movie co-starring Fonda and Robert De Niro. Determined to stop her past dictating her future, Jane requests a meeting and enters a room full of angry men for whom the war still rages. The content of the meeting is never divulged.
Having retraced Fonda’s steps, interviewed her guides, dozens of veterans and Fonda herself, Terry Jastrow’s powerful drama conjectures the battles which were fought in that encounter; battles which are as much to do with the ability of recorded images to dictate our memories as they are to do with truth.
13 July – 20 August 2016
Performances Tuesday – Saturday @ 19.30, Thursday; Saturday @ 15.00
Press night: Thursday 14 July @ 7pm
Running Time: 95 mins approx
Booking: www.parktheatre.co.uk 020 7870 6876