TO those who were there, the words “Operation Rolling Thunder” meant an aerial bombardment campaign conducted by the US and South Vietnamese air forces from 1965-68, but to the rest of us they suggest a massive bombardment of music.
Now the spectacular concert-drama “Rolling Thunder Vietnam”, previously seen in 2014 and 2016, is returning to Canberra in a new iteration, but with a few old faces.
The 2020 version features as the four main actor-singers Tom Oliver, who’s played larrikin Aussie soldier Johnny all along, Matt Pearce, back as the American marine Thomas after playing the role in 2014, with Canberra-raised actor Toby Francis as the conscripted soldier Andy and Annie Aitken as the anti-war protester Sarah, both joining the cast for the first time. Supporting actors are Imogen Moore and Will Ewing.
“As well as being great actors, they can sing in six-part harmony,” says director David Berthold, who, along with the scriptwriter, well-known Australian arts journo Bryce Hallett, first staged the production back in 2014.
We catch up with Berthold by phone to Sydney, where he’s now working at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) on a six-month job as director centre for creative practices, a job he calls “a nice little landing”.
After 10 years in Brisbane, five at La Boite Theatre and five as director of the Brisbane Festival, he’s enjoying being back in Sydney, saying, “It seems like I’ve never left”.
He first got involved with “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” in 2013, when producer Rebecca Blake got him working with Hallett, who had carried out hundreds of interviews with Vietnam veterans.
“It was a really pleasurable process,” he explains. “I worked on shaping the material around four characters to tell a colourful story, we did a creative development at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and through that, we found a way to stage it.”
Central to the popularity of “Rolling Thunder Vietnam”, subtitled “Songs That Defined A Generation”, are the songs, not least Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, along with Australian numbers, Billy Thorpe’s “Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy” and Russell Morris’ “The Real Thing”.
There are around 20 songs, reaching across from the late 1960s till the early 1970s, from Motown to protest songs, performed by the actors to a top rock band led by keyboard virtuoso Chong Lim, one of the best musical directors in the country, Berthold says.
“For people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, the music is deep in their DNA, but we’ve noticed that a lot of young people are coming… many of them have an extensive knowledge of music because young people can get it on their devices, they can just dip into any period of music.”
“Musically speaking it’s like a staged concert but what people don’t expect when they come is that it’s also storytelling, with four people expressing their experiences… it’s an unusual style of presentation.”
That story, which veers from what is happening on the battlefront to what is happening at home, centres around Johnny, a boy from a rural drought-stricken farm in Queensland, his sweetheart Sarah and his friendship with his American marine buddy, Thomas.
“But the characters don’t actually interact with each other, it’s all done through their letters, an interesting way of storytelling,” Berthold says.
“The show is big but it’s also close and personal, showing grief, joy and missing your loved ones.”
So there’s the music and the story, but what audiences don’t expect is the third element – the visuals.
The Vietnam War was the world’s first televised war so, fittingly, the stage features four huge AV panels designed by Toby Harding, showing black-and-white photographs, recorded moving images from the war, the famous Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech and images relating to each character.
Berthold had to re-familiarise himself with the show when producer Rebecca Blake asked if he’d do it again, as it had been a long time since 2016, but that too has been pleasurable, and he says he now feels at home with it.
“It actually feels more real than it did in 2016,” he says.
“It’s a story that just doesn’t go away.”
“Rolling Thunder Vietnam”, Canberra Theatre, March 27-28, bookings at canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.