Theatre review: Vietgone, QPAC

An inventive and genre-bending live-action theatrical cartoon that superbly captures the epic narratives of lives shaped by history.
Vietgone. Image is of a stage with a man in army fatigues sitting on a bottom bunk and reading a very very long letter, while a grinning man and woman hang off the top bunk.

The buzz from the audience was deafening in anticipation of the opening night of Vietgone, the final play in Queensland Theatre’s excellent smorgasbord for its 2023 season. The Welcome to Country was delivered in both English and Vietnamese, to enthusiastic applause. 

The play begins with the playwright character (Hieu Luong) stepping onto the stage, laptop in hand, to inform the audience that the Vietnamese performers will speak like streetwise Americans, while the Americans will speak gobbledygook, made up of words like “French fries” and “cheeseburgers”. Hilarity ensues. 

A monolithic billboard that doubles as an imposing screen and is accessible by two sets of stairs, announces that it’s 1975. Rapid gunfire, the sound of helicopters and deafening explosions add to the mayhem that is unfolding on the screen – Saigon has fallen. 

This vivid introduction transports audiences to Fort Chaffee, an arrival camp in Arkansas for Vietnamese civilians who have narrowly escaped the end of the Vietnam war. 

Helicopter pilot Quang (Will Tran) yearns to return to his family in Vietnam – a father who deeply regrets leaving his wife and children behind. Feisty Tong (Kristie Nguy) is fiercely determined to grasp every opportunity America has to offer. Learning to speak English is high on Tong’s list of priorities. Choosing to live in foster care with an American family despite her age (30-ish) will surely fast track her dreams. 

Vietgone by US playwright Qui Nguyen is a powerful ode to the enduring love between his parents, Quang and Tong, while adding his very own spin to the narrative that includes exaggerated American qualities, kung-fu and even some ninja action. Stereotypical Asian accents are conspicuously absent. Elements of rapping and hip-hop dance feature prominently in the telling of this romantic tale about two strangers who find themselves in a new country reluctantly thrown together by the ravages of an unwanted war. One is married, the other single. Both are trying desperately to ignore the natural spark that slowly ignites between them – their unbridled love scenes are passionately portrayed onstage and overseen by intimacy and fight director NJ Price.

The ever-evolving billboard prop designed by Christina Smith, complemented with lighting by Bernie Tan-Hayes, is pivotal in transporting the audience backwards and forwards in time. Quang, resplendent in a leather jacket (cue Marlon Brando), takes off on a road trip (Easy Rider comes to mind) in a desperate move to get back to Vietnam. He is joined by his friend and sidekick, the wisecracking Nhan (Aljin Abella). Patrick Jhanur and Ngọc Phan impressively play 13 roles between them, expertly moving between the characters of rednecks, hippies, bikers and cowboys. Phan’s role as Tong’s fiery, demanding, in-your-face mother was a roaring success with the audience when this reviewer attended. In addition to her skilful characterisation, Phan also co-directed the play along with Daniel Evans. 

Video designer Nevin Howell has created a plethora of images to reinforce the timespan and elaborate on the storyline. Grainy, black and white images flicker across the screen, encapsulating the harrowing destruction and confusion in war-torn Saigon. The unfolding love story between Quang and Tong features in time-lapse, while the psychedelic effects of smoking pot elicits peals of laughter. 

Cultural safety adviser Katrina Irawati Graham and cultural consultant Việt Trần shared their expertise to assist the cast in ensuring that the integrity, relevance and cultural aspects of Vietgone remain intact both on and off the stage.

Kate Harman and Gavin Webber, along with hip-hop consultant Minh Nguyen, were instrumental in formulating the choreography and movement. The fight scenes in Vietgone are also realistic thanks to Price’s direction. Voice and dialect coach Gabrielle Rogers and vocal coach Luke Kennedy ensured that accents are on point. 

A pulsating original rap score by Shane Rettig is front and centre in the fiction-style telling of this love story. ‘I’ll Make It Home’, ‘Blow ‘Em Up’ and ‘Gonna Start Again’ reference the yearning for home, the persecution of refugees and the fallout of war. 

Read: Performance review: FEAST Festival, Adelaide

Vietgone tackles discrimination, violence, grief, healing, sacrifice, yearning and displacement with inventiveness and fervour, written by Nguyen for his 16-year-old self. Still as relevant today as it was then (first published in 2017), its recurring themes examine the complexities of finding a place to call home, adopting a country as your own in spite of knowing that you’ll never be accepted, and acknowledging that our elders are the keepers of our history.

Over the space of an engrossing two and a bit hours, the audience is privy to a deeply moving theatrical spectacle that speaks to the testimony of hope, strength and courage – the indomitable human spirit that will always find a way to survive in spite of the odds.  

Vietgone by Qui Nguyen
Original Music: Shane Rettig
Co-Directors: Daniel Evans and Ngọc Phan
Designer: Christina Smith
Associate Costume Designer: Nathalie Ryner
Lighting Designer: Bernie Tan-Hayes
Composer/Sound Designer: Mike Willmett
Sound System Designer: Michael Waters
Video Designer: Nevin Howell
Choreography and Movement: Kate Harman and Gavin Webber
Hip Hop Consultant: Minh Nguyen
Cultural Safety Adviser: Katrina Irawati Graham
Cultural Consultant: Việt Trần
Fight and Intimacy Director: NJ Price
Voice and Dialect Coach: Gabrielle Rogers
Vocal Coach: Luke Kennedy
Cast: Aljin Abella, Patrick Jhanur, Hieu Luong, Kristie Nguy, Ngọc Phan and Will Tran

Vietgone is performing from 4-18 November at Playhouse, QPAC; tickets $35-$81.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Art sparks my imagination. Uplifts my soul. Without it, I would shrivel up and become dust. An aimless wanderer searching for that next theatre fix, book fix, cinema fix. My first play was cathartic in reconciling my past so that I could be present in the present.