Before seeing Park Theatre’s London debut of Terry Jastrow’s The Trial of Jane Fonda, my knowledge of Jane Fonda was limited to images of 80s workout videos. But, as the play illustrates, there is more to everyone than meets the eye. In August of 1972, Fonda – Hollywood actress turned pacifist – went to Hanoi. Whilst there, she met with American POWS, spoke out against the war on North Vietnamese radio and was filmed and photographed alongside an anti-aircraft gun (used to shoot down American planes). The trip earnt her the name ‘Hanoi Jane’ and the hatred of soldiers across America.
In 1988, after angry war veterans interrupt the filming of her latest movie, Jane agreed to be put on ‘trial’ by her accusers. Based on extensive interview research, Jastrow’s play is a reconstruction of this meeting. Although there are echoes of the second series of radio podcast Serial, which investigated American traitors, Joe Harmston’s production relies heavily on visual media. The otherwise sparse set is dominated by Sean Cavanagh’s graphic backdrop, onto which the names of countless wars, battles and bombings are printed across a huge cutout of the US flag. The recognisable shape of Vietnam slices through the middle, serving as a useful visual reminder that this war split America in two. Throughout, illustrative documentary footage is projected onto the backdrop.
As the audience takes their seats, gruelling, but iconic footage of the war is shown alongside laughing Hollywood pin ups; images of Jane in Hanoi join the two otherwise distinct worlds. We are reminded in the programme notes that Vietnam was the first televised war, a fact that obviously influenced Harmston’s production. Occasionally, the arrival of video footage sees the cast turn their attention to the backdrop as if it were a board, recalling school PowerPoint presentations. But for the most part, the layered narrative is one of this production’s great triumphs.
The play unfolds much as you would expect. The veterans are initially hostile. Anne Archer as a controlled but weary Fonda, walks into the room to find the men chanting ‘WE’RE NOT FOND OF FONDA’ and waving posters reading ‘F*** YOU HANOI JANE’. Where they are brash, she is considered. Where she is empathetic, they are obstinate. At times the gender divide veers into the stereotypical: male is brute incarnate; female is eloquent pacifist.
The pivot point of the play comes after a fight breaks out and the Reverend (Martin Fisher), who is mediating the ‘trial,’ asks the men to leave the room to calm down. The lights dim and Jane and the Reverend talk confessionally. When the men re-enter, they are visibly more receptive to Jane’s story – heads cocked in understanding – and ready to trade shameful truths and admit the complexity of motivations on both sides. Although the shift is expected and therefore somewhat formulaic, it is welcome. The men, who deliberately represent a cross section of society but initially move en masse, now distinguish their voices. Most notably, Alex Gaumond as Larry Bonk, as he questions who soldiers are supposed to ask for forgiveness. In turn, Fonda gives some ground, confessing that she thought the more militant she was, the more seriously she would be taken.
The characters, especially Jane, quote famous speeches, cite facts, recall video footage, family histories and long-suppressed memories. The play and its cacophony of voices exists to unpack the now historic 16 seconds of footage that ‘missed more than it filmed’ when it captured Fonda laughing and clapping in amongst the anti-aircraft equipment that shot down her fellow Americans.
As Harmston notes, ‘context is everything’ and the depth and breadth of Jastrow’s research is outstanding; this is no doubt the reason for the latter half of the play’s success. But for all the detail and multimedia, the production felt a little flat. Whilst the story of the play’s conception is energetic and urgent, the finished, and undoubtedly polished, product is lacking immediacy. It is, well, a little staged. But as Jastrow makes the point, history is staged and this is a reconstruction of a conversation of a series of events.
The Trial of Jane Fonda is on until 20th August 2016. Click here for more information.