Rolling Thunder Vietnam is more than a showcase of rock songs from the Vietnam War era. The “concert drama” is also infused with the stories of Australian veterans who fought for their country and then returned, battle-scarred, to a bitter-sweet homecoming.
Writer Bryce Hallett interviewed numerous former soldiers and also travelled to Vietnam to ensure the authenticity of the experiences portrayed in the stage show, which is coming to Adelaide on September 19-20.
He met and befriended people such Rex, from North Sydney, who shared his story when the pair met up at his local watering hole.
“The essence of him and his stories comes across a lot in the character of Andy, played by Wes Carr,” Hallett says.
“He’s someone who’s conscripted in the national ballot, but he’s had a private school education … you come to feel for this man and the fact that he is ill-equipped to be in this dangerous combat zone and yet his intelligence and curiosity and openness to things allow him to have this affinity with the Vietnamese and actually develop relationships with families and have an understanding of the vulnerability of children in this nightmare.”
He says many Vietnam soldiers felt they were left “high and dry” when they returned home to find a population that by that stage was questioning Australia’s involvement in the war.
“Some of them are still quite angry about coming back to be called rapists, child killers … they would talk about one friend of theirs during a so-called homecoming march having a bucket of red paint poured over him.
“Some, in their own minds, just felt ashamed and didn’t really want a homecoming.”
The cast of Rolling Thunder Vietnam comprises six young singer-actors and six musicians, with the former representing specific characters and delivering monologues that are a distillation of the many stories Hallett heard. These are woven between songs such as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”, Joe Cocker’s “The Letter” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle”, with a visual backdrop of projected images and historic footage.
The show also makes reference to other world events that added to the atmosphere of change and uncertainty in the late 1960s, including the assassination of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy.
Many songs of the era carried an anti-war message which might have been expected to grate with the soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, but Hallett says most of those he spoke to had loved the music.
“They all got really excited when they would hear these songs on the wireless in the camp.
“’We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place’ became like an anthem.”
He says there are several pivotal songs in the production, including a “growling duet” of “All Along the Watchtower” by Wes Carr and Matt Pierce, with a guitar solo by Stuart Fraser, and a rendition of Gladys Knight’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, which is performed just before the interval, leaving both the characters and the audience on a precipice.
Performances so far have been well-received, including by Vietnam veterans, some of whom have approached the producers afterwards to share their own war stories.
“One told us about a Dear John letter he got when he returned,” Hallett says.
“He was shunned by not just his girlfriend but also by his community and made to feel ashamed of being in that conflict … he found the show not just entertaining but incredibly therapeutic.”
He describes the production – directed by David Berthold – as a “full-blown rock ’n roll show” that also has a powerful theme. It seeks to transport audiences of all ages to the era of the 1960s and ’70s.
“You realise how timeless these songs and themes are.
“While Vietnam was a particular experience totally mired in the politics of the day, it is so relevant today … it’s great to be part of a show that has all that anti-war protest and sentiment about it while somehow honouring the men who were caught up in the horror of it.”
Rolling Thunder Vietnam – Songs That Defined a Generation will play at the Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide, on September 19 and 20, as part of a national tour.
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