Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Theatre review: Incident at Vichy

Arthur Miller remains popular and respected enough that rediscoveries of his obscure work always do well - the Finborough's latest has already sold out its run and added a couple of extra matinees. But unlike No Villain audiences won't find something that echoes his more famous work too closely, as director Phil Willmott's contention is that Incident at Vichy is the closest Miller came to absurdism. The setting is a concrete and frightening enough one though: In the early days of the Nazi occupation of France, several men are taken off the streets of Vichy; some have their papers checked, some have their noses measured. They're left in a waiting room and called in one by one to be seen by a German scientist (Timothy Harker.) Most are Jewish, although given the rumours they've heard they don't mention that at first, only using the euphemism "Peruvian."

One of the men is a Gypsy (Andro Crespo,) only making the rest more convinced that this is a collection of people the Nazis have officially deemed genetically inferior.

In keeping with Willmott's idea that this isn't entirely meant to be a realistic story and the men are all representatives of some group or ideology, designer Georgia de Grey provides an anonymous white box as a set, with one long bench that the men are squeezed onto until they start getting picked off one by one - a couple are released and hurriedly make their escape, most are never seen again. And the costumes are all self-consciously that, costumes that make an obvious statement about who or what the person is - an artist in a beret and paint-stained shoes, a waiter with his apron still on, and a silent old man referred to only as Old Jew (Jeremy Gagan,) who the others are astounded is dressed in a way that'll make him such an obvious target.

At the start most of the conflict is between the two most agitated characters, the artist Lebeau (Lawrence Boothman,) who alternates between panic and trying to convince himself everything will be fine, and the communist Bayard (Brendan O'Rourke,) whose own fear is mixed with fury. But as the original characters get taken away either calmly or more violently, we're left with a couple of later arrivals who argue on a more intellectual but still emotionally informed level: Gethin Alderman is Leduc, a psychiatrist with a pragmatic view of humanity's capacity for evil, and Edward Killingback (Yeah!) Them Motherfuckers Don't Know How To Act (Yeah!) as Von Berg, a minor Austrian prince and genuinely sympathetic but still deliberately fooling himself to an extent about where he fits into all this.

Von Berg's presence is regularly commented on as unusual because he's clearly not Jewish and I thought from a couple of dropped hints Miller might have been suggesting he was gay, but it turns out he's there for a different reason, one apparently inspired by a true event. I don't know that I quite buy the production's argument that this isn't meant to be naturalistic - some of the characters are basically stock figures (often nameless) but then this is a one-act play with a large cast, and on the other hand those characters who get a bit more attention paid to them get something of a backstory and some links to other characters - Leduc turns out to have met the German Major (Henry Wyrley-Birch) before, and the latter is horrified by what his side are doing but not enough to rebel.

The play does look more at intellectual arguments than play on emotions, despite how high those are inevitably running, which may partly explain the obscurity of an intelligent and well-written piece by a popular playwright (the large cast probably makes up the rest of the explanation.) "Depressingly topical" is a phrase I'm clearly going to be using a lot in the near future, which is even more depressing in itself, and here a couple of the play's themes stand out: Notably the denial from both sides that things could be as bad as the rumours suggest, as well as how much accident of birth could save or doom you - Von Berg has lost people he cared about to the Nazis but members of his own family have collaborated and he didn't stop them; the Major's traces of empathy come from the fact that he's circumcised, so if he didn't already have a Nazi uniform on he could easily have fallen foul of the professor's highly unscientific method of investigating who is or isn't Jewish. Incident at Vichy is interesting and thought-provoking, but some of its plot devices are clumsy, which may add to why it doesn't have as emotional an impact as the subject matter might suggest.

Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller is booking until the 22nd of April at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander.

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