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Incident at Vichy at the Finborough Theatre

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 1st Apr 2017 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

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Daniel Dowling and Edward Killingback

The important thing is not to look like a victim.

Arthur Miller is one of our greatest playwrights but although The Crucible, A View from a Bridge, and Death of a Salesman, as well as some of his lesser known plays are regularly performed, Incident at Vichy has been largely forgotten. The play opened on Broadway in December 1964, directed by Harold Clurman, and received excellent notices. Howard Taubman of the New York Times called it: "One of the most important plays of our time." However, it has not been seen in a professional production in London since 1966. More than 50 years later, Incident at Vichy is presented by the Finborough Theatre, under the direction of Phil Willmott.

The play is set in a detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, before the full horror of the Holocaust was known. Eight men have been picked up, supposedly to verify their identification papers, but in reality to reveal Jews and other unwanted elements and send them to concentration camps. 

The performance begins with a violinist on stage, faced by the entire cast. Sounds of an orchestra tuning their instruments can be heard before the lights go out. As the lights come up again, eight men from different social and economic backgrounds are seated on a long white bench, facing the audience. Lebeau (Lawrence Boothman), a starving painter, can't stop talking. Why have they been picked up? Is it a routine identity check? Marchand (Will Bryant), a businessman, is not worried: "I don't see anything to fear if your papers are all right." The electrician Bayard (Brendan O'Rourke) is not optimistic as Germany is now ruled by concerns and the ruling class is less than sympathetic towards the working man. Marchand and the Waiter (Michael Skellern) suspect that the Gypsy (Andro Crespo) is certainly in trouble as his sort are thieves and beggars. The French Police Captain (James Boyd) ignores any questions and requests but when the Waiter detects the German Major (Henry Wyrley-Birch), who is a regular patron in his cafe, he feels safer. The Major, a line officer with an injured leg, is not comfortable with his assignment, a task usually performed by the SS. 

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Lawrence Boothman, Michael Skellern, and Brendan O'Rourke

Bayard, who is working at the railyard, knows about transports of Jews to concentration camps and warns the others. Yet the idea of sending people to their deaths seems so outrageous that the other detainees won't believe him. The actor Monceau (PK Taylor) will try to outreason anybody. After all he was still playing Cyrano in Paris until a short time ago, despite having the word "Jew" stamped in his passport. Von Berg (Edward Killingback), an Austrian prince, is more pessimistic as he was forced to see his favourite violinists arrested and taken away because they were Jewish. As the businessman is let go, the other detainees become more hopeful although Professor Hoffman (Timothy Harker) of the race institute is involved in the questioning. Monceau believes that self-confidence will be enough to convince the interrogators of his innocence. Leduc (Gethin Alderman), a Jewish doctor, believes that the only way to survive is to escape from the detention room but only the Boy (Daniel Dowling) is willing to help.

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Gethin Alderman, Edward Killingback, Jeremy Gagan, James Boyd

Phil Willmott's production is set in a sterile white room (design by Georgia de Grey) with the detainees being seated on a long white bench, as advised in Arthur Miller's stage directions. As more men are brought in, the room begins to feel more and more claustophobic.  

Although the characters appear somewhat like mouthpieces for different world views at times, the cast succeed in bringing them to life. Edward Killingback is very touching as the Prince, a sensitive aesthete, who detests the Nazis for their vulgarity and brutality. Von Berg does not believe in Bayard's glorification of the working man as Hitler's supporters appear to be overwhelmingly working class, which is not quite true. PK Taylor remains the eternal optimist as Monceau, certain that he will survive, despite Leduc's valid arguments. Henry Wyrley-Birch convinces as the German Major, who seems less than enthusiastic about his role in the investigation but reveals his despicable anti-semitism in his confrontation with Leduc, one of the most intense moments in the performance. As Leduc, Gethin Alderman eloquently deals with his abundance of philosophical and sociological speeches. Although Jeremy Gagan's role as the Old Jew is almost wordless, his presence on the stage is unsettling. Remaining alone in a crowded room, he shows dignity despite his humiliation.

An impressive and timely revival of a classic play.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 22nd April 2017

Finborough Theatre 

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval. 

Photographs by Scott Rylander.

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