Monday, 3 April 2017

Review Incident At Vichy

Incident At Vichy
by Arthur Miller

No Exit

"Hope", wrote American poet Emily Dickinson, "is the thing with feathers-/That perches in the soul-/And sings the tune without the words -/And never stops - at all - ...".

Is this what was in playwright Arthur Miller's mind when the mute Old Jew (Jeremy Gagan), called to the front of the queue and facing extinction in 1942,  stands up and feathers scatter around the room from the homely pillow cover he has been clutching?

For it struck us that Miller's 1964 play Incident At Vichy is about human hope in the face of almost certain disaster. Set in "unoccupied" France, French police have rounded up eight men and a boy and are handing them to the Nazi regime.

Almost all of them turn out to be Jews on false papers. They clutch at whatever slim chances present themselves. They also deceive and lie to themselves and others all for a sliver of hope that they will survive.

The artist Lebeau (Lawrence Boothman), for example, tries to persuade himself and others that he has some agency, that it was not him, but a parent clinging to material goods who stopped him from escaping in 1939 on a US visa.

But even this seemingly simple situation has complex layers. He admits to feeling guilt, but it may be misplaced.

What is unsaid is that the elderly had far less chance of obtaining a visa and being allowed into other countries than the younger generation. Their children often had to make the anguished decision whether to stay behind with them or leave the country. He may be lying to preserve his own sanity in the face of certain death.

For it seems to us Incident At Vichy is very much a psychological play, the very human trait of human beings believing their beliefs and actions mean something and can directly lead to survival - and that their survival is not a random blip but says something about them. Transforming them from human beings buffetted by fortune that they cannot control into symbols.

Miller himself described the origins of the story behind Incident At Vichy in the vaguest of terms but named the person who relayed it to him. It's a story about "a friend of a friend" who is the recipient of an extraordinary selfless act by a fellow human being.

An incident  every Jew, every human being, must hope would happen to them if he or she was in such a position. A story everyone would want to hear even if it were a one-off or an urban legend (Losey's later movie Monsieur Klein is another kind of riff on the theme).

Although it was first staged at the Lincoln Center, this play feels very much as if it were written for  radio or a TV play (Twelve Angry Men may be a different subject with a different outcome but it's also a play similarly centring on persuasion and realisation).

Phil Willmott directs a production of great clarity with outstanding performances from Edward Killingback as dilettante gentile Austrian nobleman Von Berg and PK Taylor as an actor who tries to convince himself that confidence in his own performance both as actor and human being will win through.

We did wonder whether a production with an even more diverse cast would open up the universal themes and knotty problems contained in this play more.

The script at times feels slightly clunky as the issues are laid out - this is very much an issue-led play. Nevertheless the issues lead to no simple conclusions where devastating realities set against the nature of human relationships and politics form a web catching every class and type.

While Leduc, the psychiatrist (Gethin Alderman) seems the clearest sighted, he also has his own blind spots. At one point he blames his wife for his situation and at another time views others, not himself, as being as conditioned as Pavlov's dog.

Incident At Vichy is a play set in the year the USA entered the Second World War but also examines issues of power and responsibility which remain live in our times. Both Von Berg's belief in old pre-war feudal structures where he could proffer personal protection and Leduc's belief in education and self-awareness prove illusory. 

It's an amber/green light for a timely production with a discussion of issues always with us including industrial success achieved by using free labour and slavery rather than on its own business merits.

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