Finborough Theatre, London (***)
There is no doubting the aptness of this revival by Phil Willmott – the first in 50 years – of the play that the great New York Times critic, Harold Clurman called `one of the most important plays of our time.’
Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, set in Nazi-occupied France in 1942 takes us to the heart of the paranoia that can overtake a society faced by a tyrant or authoritarianism and asks awkward questions about responsibility, group dynamics under pressure, and the nature of belief – believing something is possible when the rational mind tells you it can’t be possible.
That it resonates with our own current hysterias about `fake news’, what is true and untrue, and the threat immigrants appear to pose here, in Europe and in the USA, goes without saying. There are lines that burst out with such brutal clarity and force, you’d have thought they were written just yesterday.
Miller’s internees are eight men – all men, no women appear – picked off the street in an apparent random document check. Or perhaps for forced labour. It is, of course, for no such thing but a cruel pricking out of any Jews in the population.
Wilmott’s setting – just plain, stark white walls – adds an admirable wider context to Miller’s words. They could as easily be spoken by today’s asylum seekers as the cross-section he holds up for examination: the businessman, the artisan, the Marxist, the aristocrat and interestingly, the psychiatrist.
The same sense of fear of the unknown, the same rumour-mill working overtime becomes very apparent as stories are passed around about freight trucks stacked with people, of ovens where people are burned pitted against the tangible logical experiences of a German population of sophistication and appreciation of Art. These things being spoken of could not be possible…
Yet the interrogations proceed. One by one the internees disappear, their noses and `male parts’ to be examined for `racial’ clues by Timothy Harker’s smiling all too credible `Professor of racial medicine’.
Willmott’s casting is exemplary. But from such perfection grows irritation. With a Pirandellian persistence, Miller digs deeper and deeper into the counter-balancing forces of reality and illusion, victimhood and acting a role.
There are such important psychological, philosophical issues in train here but despite the cast’s best endeavours and the symbolic nature of Willmott’s production, Miller’s metaphysical questionings finally lost me.
Over and above Harker’s Gestapo doctor, there are excellent contributions from Brendan O’Rourke as a communist electrician, Edward Killingback as an Austrian Prince, who didn’t see the writing on the wall early enough and PK Taylor as an actor, equally unable to square the unimaginable with his lived experience.
Should be seen, despite my personal reservations.
Incident at Vichy
By Arthur Miller
Lebeau: Lawrence Boothman
Bayard, an electrician: Brendan O’Rourke
Marchand, a businessman: Will Bryant
Monceau, an actor: PK Taylor
Gypsy: Andro Crespo
Waiter: Michael Skellern
Major: Henry Wyrley-Birch
Police Captain: James Boyd
Leduc, a doctor: Gethin Alderman
Professor Hoffman: Timothy Harker
Von Berg, a Prince: Edward Killingback
Boy: Daniel Dowling
Old Jew: Jeremy Gagan
Director: Phil Wilmott
Designer: Georgia de Grey
Lighting Designer: Robbie Butler
Costume Designer: Penn O’Gara
Sound and Music: Theo Holland
Producer: Anita Creed for The Phil Wilmott Company and The Steam Industry
Incident at Vichy premiered on Broadway at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre in December 1964, directed by Harold Clurman. It was last seen professionally in London in January 1966 at the Phoenix Theatre.
First perf of this production at the Finborough Theatre, London, Mar 28, 2017
This review first published on this site, March 31, 2017