Incident at Vichy
31st March 2017
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. This oft-quoted maxim is integral to Arthur Miller’s rarely performed masterpiece, set in a Vichy detention centre mid-way through the second World War.
A number of men, many of whom are explicitly or implicitly Jewish, are brought there against their will, and begin to speculate about their fate. Intermittent appearances by the German Police, flanked by the perfunctory Professor Hoffman (Timothy Harker), means interrogation, and one by one these men disappear. As the door slams shut, gruesomely clanking, fresh hell plays with their nerves.
This is a marvellous production – a timely examination into the horrors of racial cleansing, and the inertia that allows it to go unchallenged. The director, Phil Willmott, notes that this production of Incident at Vichy is the first to be presented without a “naturalistic set”, and consequently the audience is freed from “expectations of naturalism”. Indeed the whitewashed room, furnished simply by a long whitewashed bench, does a tremendous job of emphasising the play’s purgatorial qualities. It is a suitably dispassionate backdrop for a piece which expertly grapples with the ineffability of evil.
The cruelty of the Nazi regime is not only depicted through Hoffman, James Boyd’s sadistic police captain and Henry Wyrley-Birch’s battle-wearied Major, but in the experiences of the assembled men, who have no common understanding of their enemy. The actor Monceau (PK Taylor) cannot fathom evil in a society that enjoys the theatre, whilst Michael Skellern’s waiter knows the Major to be a good man, as he serves him breakfast daily. Skittish artist Lebeau (Lawrence Boothman) tries desperately to convince himself that he is being detained for a routine check, and when this fails, he clutches at the hope that he could not be of use to them dead. Most moving of all, principled socialist Bayard (a very affecting Brendan O’Rourke) speaks compellingly of revolution before he is overwhelmed by the hopelessness of their situation.
Courage, too, is at the play’s centre, focusing on an intellectual argument between two characters, described by Willmott as “the dreamer and the pragmatist”. Von Berg (Edward Killingback) understands that evil is a mass of contradictions, for he has seen Nazis bask in his orchestra’s music before they slaughtered the players. Yet he, an Austrian Prince, is assured of his safety – the one figure who certainly is there by accident. Psychoanalyst Leduc (Gethin Alderman) suggests that Von Berg’s status makes him complicit in the regime, noting that his cousin is a prominent member of the party and that he has consequently fallen into the same trap as many of their fellow prisoners. To Von Berg, Leduc notes, his cousin’s Nazism was a small part of a man he’d known since childhood. To Leduc, it was all of him. In turn, Von Berg’s bravery in the final act raises compelling questions about the complexities of goodness and its relationship with guilt.
The production contains a host of strong performances, with two worthy of particular mention. Taylor’s Monceau is quite brilliant – a complex, but kind-hearted figure whose passionate defence of his supposedly cowardly behaviour touched me enormously, especially when compared with his final scene. Boothman’s Leabeau, who dominates the first Act with increasingly irritating logorrhoea, is not pleasant company, but he is heartbreakingly human. He is asked to stop thinking about himself, and angrily queries who he should be thinking about instead. Gradually, it becomes clear that his inane questioning is assurance seeking behaviour, suggesting that he knows deep in his heart that all is lost. It is a beautiful and harrowing portrait of man at its most fearful.
Finborough Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s scarcely seen Incident at Vichy does great justice to a play that deserves a far wider audience. Compellingly staged and beautifully acted, the production demonstrates the cruel and contradictory faces of evil, which smile when good men succumb to inertia.