Incident at Vichy, Finborough Theatre, London ★★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

With the state of current political events, and right wing ideologies gaining strength and power both sides of the Atlantic, it is perhaps inevitable that our live theatre is responding with material heavily influenced by themes of fascism in World War II.

Into that category falls Incident at Vichy, a play set in 1942 Vichy France, the Southern region of the country that, while not officially under direct control of the invading German forces, fell so far into appeasement that the distinction became almost irrelevant.

In Arthur Miller’s chillingly believable play, a group of men are in a police waiting room after being picked up to have their papers checked. It is apparent that they are all there because they are perceived as enemies of the Reich, either by ethnicity, political beliefs or any number of other reasons.

Director Phil Wilmott has eschewed a realist style, choosing instead to recreate the holding area as a stark white box with a single white bench seat, in a set designed by Georgia de Grey. In doing so, the similarities with a Kafka-style interaction with a terrifying bureaucracy are highlighted. And, although the characters’ costumes still root events in World War II, the absence of any other historical clues helps to highlight the similarities with authoritarian regimes, from the Eastern bloc countries in Cold War-era Europe to fears about other administrations today.

Miller’s collection of characters are largely anonymised, identified by characteristics and professions more than by name. Lawrence Boothman’s nervy, overly loquacious painter dominates early proceedings, antagonising his fellow captives with his constant vocalisation of the fears they are all experiencing. One by one, the group are taken away by Timothy Harker’s steely Professor Harker, most of whom are never seen again. As the dwindling band of waiting men talk among themselves, the rumours of forced labour camps in Poland begin to spread and take hold, even though several men (most notably PK Taylor’s waspish actor) refuse to believe that the German populace would countenance such measures.

Throughout, the growing sense of fear builds effectively, as the people waiting for their police interviews come to realise that having their papers in order may not be enough. There are undercurrents of how the attitude of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” does not apply to those who are being targeted, who have to fight against a prejudice that presumes guilt where others are presumed innocent. Nor are those targeted immune from their own prejudices: their assumption that Andro Crespo’s gypsy is a beggar and a thief is proof of that.

Brendan O’Rourke and Gethin Alderman, as the two men most likely to stand up to the Nazis holding them, are suitably impressive in their distinctive ways. But it is Edward Killingback’s softly spoken Austrian, a music-loving prince who attempted to shelter musicians targeted by the Reich, whose final act of nobility packs the biggest punch.

Quite why this piece has rarely been revived by a theatre community that otherwise adores Miller’s other works may have many reasons, including the difficulties of budgeting a fringe production that could pay for such a relatively large cast. Ignorance of the source material, or belief that it a historical curio, may also be a factor: by staging Incident at Vichy in a style so far removed from the playwright’s traditional setting, Wilmott may have just unlocked the key to future revivals.