Sunday, 11 June 2017

Review Incident At Vichy

A lesser-known Arthur Miller play where the playwright tackled the fate of the Jews during the Second War receives a fine production, says Francis Beckett. 

Incident at Vichy 
by Arthur Miller  

Miller's Jewish Question 

Arthur Miller may be the greatest English-language radical playwright of the twentieth century. His 1949 play Death of a Salesman is the most accurate and effective indictment of American capitalism I know, and Miller himself was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Yet, on his own admission, he was for years tone deaf to the Second World War persecution of the Jews. In Italy in 1947 he glimpsed a group of Holocaust survivors on their way to Israel but could make nothing of it.  “I was talking to burnt wood, charred iron, bone with eyes” he wrote later.

Yet he was a Jew.  (He told a story about taking his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, to meet his parents, who offered her matzo balls to eat on three consecutive days.  “Isn’t there any other part of the matzo you can eat?” she asked.)

In the 1960s Miller at last began to see the Holocaust clearly, and to relate it to all the things he had fought against all his life.  This short play is one of the results.

It takes place after the fall of France in 1940, when the northern part of the country was under  the direct rule of Nazi Germany. The French government under Marshal Pétain was allowed nominally to rule the rest from the spa town of Vichy. However Pétain’s authority was very limited, and relied on his willingness to do the victors’ bidding in most matters, including implementing Nazi race laws.

So some strangely assorted men are gathered in a police station in Vichy, most of them having been picked up on suspicion of being Jews, and they will have their noses measured, and their penises  inspected to see if they have been circumcised.

Three of them are not Jews. One man has been picked up as a communist, another is a gypsy, and a third an Austrian prince who, we are encouraged to believe, is probably a homosexual.

It’s a very strong and effective play even at that level, the level of telling a gripping story.  These men are not saints. They are fully-drawn human beings, with human weaknesses, and as likely to show solidarity in the face of dreadful danger as you and I.

But it’s the politics of the play, and its contemporary relevance, which most interest director Phil Willmott, who says he was “amazed to discover that the play had always been presented realistically.”  So for the first time, he says, it is now performed without a naturalistic set.

I don’t buy Willmott’s view that Miller didn’t intend us to believe in the play as a representation of what might easily have happened in Vichy France in 1940 or 1941.  But it doesn’t matter.

The set designed by Georgia de Grey is quite naturalistic enough to convince in a fringe venue like the King's Head, which doesn't need all the naturalistic bells and whistles a West End audience demands.

Willmott moves his cast around economically and with calm assurance. That’s to say, he doesn’t insult the audience by supposing constant movement is needed to keep our attention. If, for instance, the dialogue demands the actors sit still for minutes on end, that’s what they do.

Standouts for me in a strong cast were Laurence Boothman as a terrified and neurotic painter; Edward Killingback as the Austrian prince; Brendan O’Rourke as a communist electrician; PK. Taylor as an actor; and Timothy Harker as the Nazi doctor, saying dreadful things in a calm and bureaucratic tone.

But all twelve actors were excellent; there isn’t a weak link. And just pause at that number for a moment. Twelve actors in the Kings Head, which would be crammed to the gunwales if 118 people turned up, and the venue insists they pay every actor, at a special rate agreed with the actors’ trade union Equity.

Paying actors a regular wage is almost unheard-of on the fringe, and the King's Head is much to be congratulated on doing it. Before the performance on press night artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher made a charming and amusing plea for funds and I saw quite a few banknotes being thrown into the buckets his staff held out as we left.

Good as that was to see, it still seems wrong that we now live in a society where you can only pay actors for a fine production like this by rattling a charity box.

Still, you’ll help them by going to see Incident at Vichy; and you’ll see a fine production of a really interesting play, for which a green light is the least I could possibly award.

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