Review: Incident at Vichy
Image: Anita Creed Productions, The Phil Willmott Company, The Steam Industry
“Jews are not a race, you know.
They can look like anybody.”
The first professional London production in over 50 years.
Arthur Miller’s largely forgotten masterpiece about Jewish registration in Nazi occupied France burns with a terrifying topical intensity.
In the detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, eight men have been picked up for questioning but none are told why they are held, or when they can leave.
At first, their hopeful guess is that only their identity papers will be checked - but as each man is removed for interrogation, some are set free, some are never seen again, and the stakes rise for those who remain …
A haunting examination of the cold, bureaucratic efficiency of evil - and the shared humanity that might overcome it.
Incident at Vichy premiered on Broadway at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre in December 1964, directed by Harold Clurman.
The New York Times called it “One of the most important plays of our time … Incident at Vichy returns the theater to greatness.”
It was last seen professionally in London in January 1966 at the Phoenix Theatre.
If you've glanced at the cast list, you'll have noticed that it comprises a large number of actors.
In fact, I believe the play actually calls for even more actors - 21 in total - than we actually find in this production.
That this play requires a considerable cast, yet only comprises one act, is probably - as director Phil Willmott points out in his substantial and highly informative programme notes - the reason why this salient play hasn't been professionally produced for some time in London.
The mere fact that the Finborough Theatre has taken on this work is more than sufficient justification to see it.
However, it also happens to be an extraordinarily moving and provocative production of a vitally important piece of drama that asks us to consider crucial issues that go to the very heart of what it means to be human, including how far we recognise and act on our responsibilities for our own lives and those of other members of the wider human family.
And if you're an admirer of Arthur Miller's work, you may want to catch it while you can, since it's unlikely that you'll get another chance to see it any time soon.
The play takes place in the detention room of a police station in Vichy in 1942, where we find a group of men who have been rounded-up and detained by the Nazis - picked-up during the course of their normal daily business from the streets.
The Nazis were obviously seeking out Jews in particular, but other racial groups are represented here too.
The backgrounds of these men cover the gamut of occupations and classes - among them is a doctor, a painter, a businessman, an electrician, an actor, a gypsy and a 14 year-old boy.
They are waiting in the detention room together while they are called one-by-one for interrogation, their papers to be checked and to hear their fate.
As the process proceeds, the men are left on their own, without guards, and they begin to discuss their predicament.
Though they are "Scared to death", their deliberations are initially focused on matters of bureaucracy, in particular whether their identity papers are authentic and in order.
As time moves on, we learn that some of them have heard about 'furnaces' used as extermination devices.
But most of the group assume that the Nazis would only want to use them as labour, rather than kill them - they won't consider the "unthinkable" preferring to apply rational thought to a situation where dogmatic irrationality holds sway.
Even when one of them sees a way for them to escape, the majority won't take the opportunity.
Phil Willmott makes no attempt here to produce a detailed recreation of a Vichy police station.
What we get instead is a simple box-like structure which contains the action and is painted completely white - including the floor.
The set looks like it might even get a fresh coat of paint after each performance, because it almost sparkles.
Since white can be used to indicate purity, the implication is clear given the context of the Nazi obsession with racial purity and their intention to eradicate those of other races.
Penn O'Gara's costumes, though, do lend the production period authenticity - of course, there's a symbolic beret in evidence and, in a nice touch, the actor among the group looks like he might have just stepped off the set of Luchino Visconti's 1971 film Death In Venice.
The lack of a naturalistic set means we can focus not just on the characters and what they say, but also home-in on the larger issues which Arthur Miller raises.
And those issues are contentious and profound.
Moreover, they are as relevant today as they were back in the 1940s, or even the 1960s when the play received its first airing.
In his authoritative work The Oxford Dictionary of Plays (which provides information and commentaries about 1,000 of the most significant plays in world theatre), author Michael Patterson rightly says that Incident at Vichy "recognises not only that racism is found the world over, but also that the victims, in this case the jews, were often partly complicit in their own oppression".
Those two startling points are backed-up by the dialogue - one character says "Even the Jews have their Jews", and another says that the Nazis "... rely on us to comply".
The denouement is as strikingly poignant as it is unexpected, but leaves us with some hope at the end of a play which is both disturbingly chilling and unnerving, though not so harrowing as one might expect.
In Phil Willmott's highly capable directorial hands, supported by intensely gripping performances from an admirable cast, Arthur Miller's cautionary play still bristles with unsettling, yet compelling relevance, producing an engrossing and unmissable evening's drama.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Finborough Theatre
Our show listing for Incident at Vichy
Read our reviews' policy