Chilling yet compelling: my thoughts on Arthur Miller’s ‘Incident at Vichy’

Incident at Vichy

I knew very little about ‘Incident at Vichy’ before I went to see it today. It’s not one of Arthur Miller’s better-known plays, nor is it performed all that often – this is the first professional production to grace the London stage in over 50 years.

I have absolutely no idea why that is. To say that I found this play gripping would be to do it a disservice; rarely have I spent such an intense – not to mention nerve-shredding – 90 minutes. Let me explain: the year is 1941 and we find ourselves in what appears to be a waiting room, where a group of men, of varying ages, are seated. It is immediately apparent, however, from the men’s demeanour that this is no ordinary waiting room: the tension is palpable.

As the men gradually – and in some cases reluctantly – begin to talk to each other, we learn more about their characters and backgrounds – and the single, chilling reason which has brought them all to this unhappy dwelling. We are in Nazi-occupied France, and each of the men in front of us was rounded up by Nazi soldiers earlier in the day and escorted here, under the pretext of being “interviewed”. Whether or not they believe this story depends upon the individual; denial, as we are to see, is a powerful emotion. Some are clinging on to the belief that because their papers are supposedly in order they are safe; others have a pretty good inkling of what the next few hours will bring.

Watching the men and how they interact – alternately cajoling, encouraging, weeping, raging and pleading with each other – makes for an incredibly powerful piece of theatre. As an audience member, in possession of knowledge which these men do not yet have, you experience a range of emotions – dread, in particular. The tension never lets up, aided by the fact that the theatre is small and the play has no interval: a heavy blanket of claustrophobia weighs over us all.

One of the most compelling elements of the play is the uneasy relationship between the men and their guards. Through the latter, Miller does try to provide some insight into what it must have been like to carry out these “duties” whilst not necessarily believing in them: how culpable are you if you are “only” carrying out orders? That, to me, is one of the most interesting questions that the play asks – and one which could be debated endlessly. This play – rightly – allows us to draw our own conclusions.

This is a true ensemble piece – and as such it would be unfair to single out any particular actor for praise; they are all excellent, and I’m not surprised that the play has achieved a transfer to the King’s Head Theatre, in Islington. On a personal level, I was excited to see Henry Wyrley-Birch, as the “Major”; so good in ‘The Fellowship’, he shines again here.

Do go to see this magnificent piece of theatre if you can; you will find the writing, acting and directing to be of the highest order. Addressing as it does themes including prejudice, xenophobia and religious intolerance, I can also say, with a heavy heart, that it has never been more timely.

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