Incident at Vichy, a one-act play by Arthur Miller, condenses and multiplies his usual sense of foreboding. It’s 1942 in Vichy France and an assorted group of suspected Jews and ‘asocials’ have been detained by Nazis in a makeshift prison. One hysterical young man has had his nose measured. The drip-drip-drip of rumours and panic start to build as the waiting game continues.
Miller’s play is a window into French deportations of Jews, which took place between 27th March 1942 and 17th August 1944. 77,000 deportees from France lost their lives at Nazi death camps or concentration camps, and 1/3 of these were official French citizens.
In 2017, we may feel a comfortable distance from the events of Vichy France, but each era of history has its own version. Right now, there’s ISIS, Assad, the ever-uncontrollable Trump and his proposed Muslim registry, plus Boko Haram and many more. A revival of this play is undoubtedly timely; as director Phil Wilmott explains, ‘We really do need to hear what it has to say’.
There are many poignant lines in Incident at Vichy, and they’re divided between several characters, each sharing the heavy weight of history as it unfolds in front of them. Their regional accents also add to the feeling of mass persecution: that it wasn’t just locals under threat, but people from all over Europe, from all walks of life (albeit with Irish and Scottish accents here). Debates about the Nazis being cultured or uncultured, and working class or upper class, bring the men no closer to understanding the logic of their captors.
With hindsight, we see how misguided the more hopeful characters are: those whose chances to escape Vichy France were squandered by their own optimism and humanity or, in the case of the artist Lebeau (an unforgettable Laurence Boothman), because his mother couldn’t bear to leave her brass bed behind. Obviously, there’s no bed seen here, but the small props – Lebeau’s sketchbook, the anonymous Gypsy’s dented saucepan, the young boy’s mother’s ring – tell their own stories. It’s good they’re kept to a minimum in this very stripped back production.
Today we use Jewish relics and possessions as identity markers of Holocaust victims; the terrifying piles of shoes and tangles of glasses and crutches at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The possessions they couldn’t take with them, like a bed or a wardrobe, would be grabbed by Nazis or, unfortunately, opportunistic locals.
Though Incident at Vichy doesn’t explore this part of the Holocaust, it does demonstrate the chasm opening up between Jews and non-Jews, whose possessions and positions won’t save them; the Jewish waiter, quite prim and proper until the very end, is an obvious example, as are the Austrian musicians mentioned by the Prince (a perfectly understated Edward Killingback). As the Major says spitefully at one point, ‘There’ll never be individuals again.’
The play also dwells on history’s many other examples of persecution and mass murder. Miller demonstrates no culture is innocent of crimes against other national or racial groups: the Americans against First Nations and African Americans; the British against every country it colonised; the Australians against the Aborigines. It’s uncomfortable but necessary viewing, especially when Leduc, the doctor, points out that ‘Even the Jews have their Jews’. Despite these historical references and the potential to feel lectured, this is all neatly interwoven into the dialogue.
A non-naturalistic stage set-up is brave for such a specific play: the white bench and white walls isn’t much to work with, especially as the director notes all professional productions of Incident at Vichy have been naturalistic up until now. But the sparseness possibly lends itself to the situation, where each man arrives not knowing why he is there, or what will happen in the next room. That feeling of limbo is captured by the nothingness of the space, and it makes the Nazi uniforms stand out all the more.
There’s a little overzealous voice projection during altercations (in a small space, it would be good to control the volume a bit more), and I spotted a few unintentionally painful stage exits; some actors were probably bruised by clipping the walls as they left for ‘inspection’. These issues could be remedied in a bigger venue, but the confined space does lend itself to the play setting. A makeshift prison cell isn’t supposed to be roomy.
The costumes are well thought-out, down to small details like the paint splatters on Lebeau’s shoes, though I was confused by Prince von Berg’s blazer – I mistook him for a hotel concierge at first. Maybe I just don’t spend enough time with royalty.
This play has garnered positive reviews, and with good reason. It’s typically bold Miller fodder, but packs more of a punch (and a blessedly shorter running time) than The Crucible. Incident at Vichy is an emotive history lesson and a real coup for the Finborough Theatre.
Visiting Notes: Incident at Vichy runs at the Finborough Theatre, Finborough Road, London, until 22nd April 2017; check the website for times and availability. Tickets are £16-18.