If someone were to mention the name Jane Fonda to you, what images would it conjure up? For me: some great films, definitely. Those 1980s keep fit videos, complete with garish leotards, certainly. A political activist and woman of integrity, for sure. And then, of course, there’s that infamous photo of Jane taken in 1972, during the Vietnam War, with Jane sitting laughing & clapping in the gunner’s seat of a Vietnamese anti-aircraft plane.
To this day, she remains unforgiven by sections of the U.S. population. Based on real-life events, ‘The Trial of Jane Fonda’ transports us back to 1985, when a movie Jane was making with Robert de Niro was picketed daily by Vietnam veterans. Stung by the veterans’ ceaseless hostility, Jane agreed to meet with them – and this play tells the story of that meeting. Before putting pen to paper its author, Terry Jastrow, retraced Jane’s steps in Vietnam, interviewing her guides & interpreters, dozens of veterans and Jane herself.
The first thing to say is that this play packs a real punch. Just 90 minutes long, there’s no respite from the claustrophobic, intense atmosphere invoked by the confined setting and gritty script. Anne Archer is compelling as Jane Fonda, at turns pleading, sad, bewildered and confrontational (although I did wonder if a touch more aggression was needed in Archer’s portrayal; at times her Jane is almost meek). The actors playing the priest hosting the meeting and the war veterans are equally good; your sympathies swing backwards & forwards constantly. And the play itself identifies some interesting aspects of the 1960s peace protest which the Establishment has done its best to sweep under the carpet.
Ultimately, of course, no-one other than Jane Fonda will ever know what her intentions were when she posed for That Photo. She was by no means the first celebrity to protest against the war or to visit Vietnam, but she was the only one to allow herself to be used in that way. It seems unlikely that she set out to intentionally upset or mock American soldiers (after all her own father, Henry Fonda, fought and was decorated in WWII) and you don’t doubt Jane’s sincerity when, close to the end of the play she says, despairingly, “I will regret that photo for the rest of my days.”