Incident At Vichy
Finborough Theatre Spring 2017
In an interview with NBC in 2015 Donald Trump appeared to be supporting the registration of all Muslims. He probably misspoke and no registry has been introduced but it generated anxiety among many people and not just Muslims.
Arthur Miller’s play Incident at Vichy, here directed by Phil Willmott, takes us back to France under German occupation in 1942 where Jewish businesses had already been required to register.
Eleven men are being held in a tiny white room, most crammed onto a white bench that stretches its width. No one has been told why they are being held.
The businessman Marchand thinks it is simply a matter of checking papers and is soon released. The artist Lebeau (Lawrence Boothman) says they measured his nose, and suspects they are looking for Jewish people.
The waiter recognises a German officer who he describes as a decent man, but admits to hearing reports that Jews are being killed. Anxiously they discuss the possible purpose of the arrests, the war, and even such issues as the extent to which working people supported Hitler.
The psychiatrist Leduc, a former soldier, who is given a particularly strong performance by Gethin Alderman, argues they should use their numbers to overwhelm the guards and escape. Uncertain about their fate, most are reluctant to agree to this suggestion.
Inevitably they talk about how they have responded to the persecution of Jewish people. Prince Von Berg seems to have done little more than regard the Nazis as vulgar. Others feel a mixture of guilt and shame. The waiter admits that he has heard so many negative things about Jews that he feels guilty being one.
The dramatic circumstances of their detention, Miller’s sharp writing and the fine performance make this a very watchable show. Its characters can seem like narrow representatives of different positions, but that is their purpose. The play doesn't need to be logical or naturalistic. After all, as one character points out, there is nothing logical about what the Nazis were doing.
The most shocking and memorable moment in this production is not the nervous speculation about the death camps, but the point when an older Jewish man is taken from the room. As the official moves him, the pillow he is clutching bursts scattering a mass of feathers.
There was something incredibly disturbing about the feathers flying, the anguish on the man’s face and the laughter of the officials.
Last week a teacher wrote to me about her student’s response to the current climate generated by the UK Government’s anti-radicalisation policies. She wrote “most upsetting was to hear from Muslim students they would never discuss publicly anything related to religion in fear of being accused of extremism.”
The characters waiting in that 1942 detention centre in Vichy France would have understood that response. It’s what makes the performance of Incident at Vichy at the Finborough Theatre incredibly topical.
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Review - Incident at Vichy - Finborough Theatre 2017