The Vietnam War is a time of confused memories for Australians who weren’t directly involved.
Huge peace protests, horrific images of the first televised war, Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked from a napalmed village, wave after wave of helicopters, conscientious objectors and the disdain of many Australians for the returning soldiers, were all a part of those turbulent times.
But for the conscripts, the Vietnam Vets, who fought against the Viet Cong in the 1960s and 1970s the war left a lifelong indelible impression.
Sydney theatre producer Rebecca Blake, who was a child herself during those war years, is the driving force behind Vietnam War theatrical production RollingThunder which is heading to Perth in May.
Rebecca aims to give audiences an idea of what the war was like through the eyes of three soldiers, using the extraordinary music of the era, four big screens and a cast of six.
“People come to this show without a real understanding of what it is because it encapsulates so much,” Rebecca says.
Rolling Thunder covers a timeline from the late sixties, through the early seventies, when troops were being packed off to South East Asia; it delves into conscription, combat, protest and homecoming with stories based around interviews the producers carried out with veterans.
“We wanted to keep the authentic history of everything so it all comes from their letters, because back then there weren’t mobile phones to communicate with, it was purely by letter so the main theme of the story is this letter writing, each character on stage is telling you their journey through letters.”
War footage and photographs from Vietnam veterans and music of the era from five musicians help outline the journey of three soldiers.
“One is a U.S. Marine, the other is conscripted who has a mother in Save Our Sons and then we have Johnny the larrikin who’s a country boy who goes to war leaving his fiancé behind.
“The heart of the story is a love story between those two.
“People get immersed in the stories of the three soldiers because each one is telling you their journey.
“Vietnam was dubbed the Rock’n’Roll War so we have a lot of the best songs from Steppenwolf, Marvin Gaye, Credence, Jimmy Hendrix, The
Animals and our finale song is Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel and that is beautiful.
“We have projections, so it is very insightful of that era and a lot of young people come, school groups and you get the older crowd in their sixties and over.”
This will be the third time the show has come to Perth, previously in 2014 and 2016.
The title of the show, Rolling Thunder, comes from a sustained bombing campaign of North Vietnam by the United States and it is also the name of Harley Davidson’s biggest U.S. motorcycle event.
Around half a million Harleys drive down Memorial Avenue in Washington DC from the annual Rolling to Remember Run each year to bring awareness to U.S. veterans highlighting the plight of those who commited suicide.
Rebecca has participated in the run in the past and says it was an amazing experience.
“That was the other reason Rolling Thunder was chosen because we get a lot of support from veteran groups and a lot of the veterans do ride these beautiful Harley Davidson bikes.”
Rebecca has worked hard to get the rights to the music for the show which she says includes some of the best songs ever written and are very important to the story because each song has its place in the storytelling.
“There’s no way we could do this show without Killing Me Softly, Bridge Over Troubled Water and the show opens with Magic Carpet Ride which is basically the choppers coming in.”
The production features music classics by Steppenwolf, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Gladys Knight, Billy Thorpe and Paul Simon with songs that include Fortunate Son, All Along The Watchtower, The Letter, Magic Carpet Ride, Help Me Make it Through the Night, What’s Going On, Born to Be Wild, Eve of Destruction, Paint it Black, Killing Me Softly With His Song and Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Rebecca says her personal favourite is a version of All Along the Watch Tower.
“I love Marvin Gaye so What’s Going On, a medley that they do, Bridge Over Troubled Water, you can’t go wrong with that song, it’s just so beautiful.”
Journalist Bryce Hallet was commissioned to write the show which was originally planned as a tribute with music, but Rebecca says it evolved into its current form as they were working on it and working with veterans became a voyage of discovery.
At the production’s heart is a love story of courage, longing and resilience. Tom Oliver (Velvet, The Marcia Hines Band) reprises the role of country boy Johnny in the rock drama.
Rebecca says that in our own era of uncertainty and the war in Ukraine, the show’s themes of courage and loss, allegiance and displacement, protest and peace, are resonant and timely.
The production supports Soldier On, a not-for-profit organisation providing integrated and holistic support services to Australia’s Defence personnel, contemporary veterans and their families.
Rebecca says she is old enough to remember seeing the war on television with her parents.
“I think I was in Grade 4, so I’m not in my sixties, but well into my fifties and I go to cafés now, even here in Perth and the music’s playing, you are hearing Credence or you are hearing Joe Cocker or Martha and the Vandellas or Gladys Knight so it is still relevant to all age groups.”
There will only be three shows at the Perth Concert Hall on Friday, May 19 at 7.30pm and on Saturday, May 20 at 2pm and 7.30pm. www.rollingthundervietnam.com.