Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: 'Incident at Vichy' at the King's Head Theatre, 13th June 2017

Incident at Vichy reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

It's 1942 in Nazi-occupied France and ten men sit in a holding pen as the Nazis decide which of them are Jewish. It's 1956 and playwright Arthur Miller waits on a bench outside a courtroom in Washington waiting to be grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It's 2017 and roomfuls of refugees sit in legal purgatory in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre awaiting judgment. Hannah Arendt's identification of the "banality of evil" remains as accurate as ever - the mechanical processes of bureaucracy allowing individuals to deny responsibility.

First performed in 1964 in New York City, Incident at Vichy is an Arthur Miller play that's fallen through the cracks. Earlier this year it was revived at the Finborough Theatre where it played to sell-out audiences and now it transfers to the King's Head in leafy Islington. It's a sleek and streamlined piece of theatre: ten men sit on a bench in front of a white background fearfully discussing why they've been detained and what might happen to them. They represent various archetypes: the artist, the businessman, the communist, the aristocrat, the boy, the old man, the Roma, the actor, the waiter, and the military man.

The rhythmic metal clanging of the cell door punctuates the action as the men are escorted through to examination room where they're given ritual emasculated, their cocks examined to see if they're circumcised, which is all the proof the Nazis need to consign you to the death camps. Some return from the examination clutching release papers. Most do not.

Over 85 uneasy minutes the characters pick over their lives, the political situation, and their personal philosophies. Most of them begin from a place of stunned disbelief: surely being detained is something that happens to other people? But there's rub, one day the other person is going to be you. They gradually process their situation, realising with increasing desperation that nothing and no-one is going to save them. Then comes muttered rumours of trains packed with Jews heading to camps in Austria and the murmurs of vast incinerators.

It's a taut, smart as hell piece of drama -  you'd expect no less from Arthur Miller. What most impressed upon me was the futility of petty squabbling in the face of evil. Each of these men recognises that they're at the mercy of a sadistic nightmare regime, yet they simply cannot come together in organised resistance. Their differences range from political, social, physical - or, simply, cowardice. We repeatedly hear that there's just a single guard on the door and if all the men rushed him at once at least some of them would get away. But it is impossible for them to act as one, even if they're all facing the same fate. It's precisely this communal inactivity that allows for (insert your own oppressive organisation here) freedom to realise their twisted views.

But though it's a great idea to revive this and despite the satisfyingly meaty ideas being explored, the production is somewhat hamstrung by uneven performances. Some members of the cast stand out a mile - with Brendan O'Rourke's communist electrician is a powerful stage presence from the moment the house lights go up. Most of the men are nervously leaning back, but he stares out into the audience, seething with class injustice. PK Taylor's actor is also a real treat, nervously burrowing down into denial and refusing to face up the situation he's in. Jeremy Gagan's mute old man, despite not saying a single thing throughout the play, is also excellent - giving the play it's most memorably moment as he throws his hands to the sky and silently screams.

Yet these delights are offset by some intense stodginess from Henry Wyrley-Birch as a former military man now hiding in the country with his family. Throughout the play the character never fully comes into focus, exacerbated by him having the shoulder a lot of the more philosophical exposition. 

Then there's Lawrence Boothman's neurotic artist. I've got to hand it to Boothman, he sure does do a lot of acting, twitching, staring and fidgeting in reaction to every single line dialogue. Approaching this role as a histrionic and very camp Scotsman is perhaps the production's one genuine misstep, the character and performance coming perilously close to derailing certain scenes.

Incident at Vichy is undoubtedly a great play. The best plays about Nazism send a cool chill up the spine, scary in a way that surpasses any horror film. This does that, and the quality and scope of Miller's writing shines through, despite a somewhat uneven production.

Incident at Vichy is at the King's Head Theatre until 25 June. Tickets here.

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