Incident At Vichy

Review of the performance at the Finborough Theatre, London
Saturday 15th April 2017
Review by David Smith

“It's not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility - that might have helped”
(Leduc to Von Berg  - P 289  Miller - Plays Two - Methuen 1988)

The wonderful Finborough theatre reputed for reviving “old masters” of the stage is the perfect venue for Phil Wilmot’s superb production. Seating only fifty, the intimacy stimulates the intensity of anticipation and fear that were at the centre of Miller's intention.

Georgia de Grey cleverly captures the anonymity that Miller intended, this stark white room furnished only with a spare white bench, the harsh lighting adding to the foreboding. This room we are told is in Vichy in 1942, it could be anywhere, then or now.

Before the play begins, we are lulled by Theo Holland’s collection of pastoral French songs, a poignant reminder of the past. This contrasts violently with the fiendish crashing of the door into the examination room. As it opens it grabs both cast and audience with fearful anticipation of which of their tormentors will emerge, when it closes, it does so with terrifying finality. The door’s action serving to ratchet the nerves to further extremes.

The action begins with a group of men who have been randomly rounded up by the Nazis. They are kept waiting and their anxiety grows with rumours particularly when German police and the sinister Professor Hoffman (Timothy Harker) arrives with his ominous clip-board. This group of men and their oppressors are parts of Miller's mosiac, symbols to explore reactions to evil and examine the motives of the promoters of it.

Director Willmott states “so we have set out to present truthfully delivered dialogue as starkly as possible to invite your analysis of the ideas expressed, throughout”, he clearly recognises there is no need for embellishment, he knows he can leave that to the text. He should however be congratulated on ensuring his cast have also no need for such embellishment, their obvious fidelity and trust in Miller is a testament to him.

Jeremy Gagan (Old Jew) has no dialogue, but he listens and gradually subsides to inevitability, his pathetic parcel wrenched from him spilling the white feathers, the entrails of his tradition and religion ripped, only at this moment do we hear his primeval cry. The Gypsy, (Andro Crespo) understands he is the focal point for the groups disdain. Fiercely holding the metal pot (“Of course he has stolen it”). After he is taken, Bayard, (Brendon O'Rourke ) adds pragmatism to his socialist belief,  twisting the handle from the pot, a tool that might just help escape from the train to Poland.

Daniel Dowling as the fifteen year old breaks hearts in his concern for his mother, also a reminder that the Nazi net was complete. All the characters search for their exit, PK Taylor (Monceau) is superb as the actor who his playing his most important role. Whenever the Germans enter he turns his “best face” towards them, a polite half smile, he cannot believe, despite growing evidence to the contrary that the German nation of culture and music he recalls can be capable of such evil.

Cracks also appear within the Nazi ranks, Wyrley-Birch brilliantly portrays the Major’s torment of being dragged into the SS machine. Trying valiantly to escape sinking to their level, but having to succumb when reminded by the odious Professor of the consequences of his refusal. This is the epitome of guilt overwhelming responsibility.

 Special mention should be made of Lawrence Boothman’s disintegrating performance as Lebeau, the idealist painter. A constant irritant at the beginning with his questions of the others, then as the hints are released, the Polish train driver seen locally, the talk of furnaces, he dissolves into a shaking wreck. Boothman is marvellous as the character who is simply unashamedly and uncontrollably petrified, contrasting the barely concealed fear of the others.

Then there are two, Leduc (Gethin Alderman) and Von Berg, the Austrian aristocrat (Edward Killingback). Killingbeck’s timing of his role is perfect. From childlike naivety, we observe his transition into absolute understanding and clarity of the pure evil of  the Nazi regime. This transition is prompted superbly by Gethin Alderman's sparring, reminding Von Berg of painful home truths that should have been so obvious to the effete prince. The final blow, when Leduc reminds him that his cousin a Baron, had arranged for all the Jewish doctors to be removed from a medical school.

Miller’s stage note is incisive “They are quite joined: and Leduc is mourning for the Prince as much as for himself, despite his anger”.

Von Berg responds to Miller’s demand for responsibility over guilt, giving his pass to freedom to Leduc. The play ends with this temporary victory, as usual Miller’s ambiguity reigns with many unanswered questions. As Phil Wilmott says in his notes “To appreciate Incident at Vichy, you have  to really want to hear what it has to say, and now more than ever, we really do need to hear what it has to say”.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Wilmott could gather up this marvellous caravan and set it down in more anonymous spaces and do just that.

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