Forgotten plays by seasoned playrights are always a welcome treat. For such plays to also resonate today is an indication of their pedigree and social relevance. Following a recent run at Finborough Theatre, Incident At Vichy by Arthur Miller has transfered to the King’s Head Theatre and enjoyed sold-out performances. Directed by Phil Willmott, this 12-strong play can be describe as a cross between Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos and the 1957 film 12 Angry Men…
Rounded up by the Vichy authorities in France, 10 strangers sit in a confined room wondering why they have been gathered. Initially sitting in silence, the frantic outbursts of Lebeau (Lawrence Boothman) gets everyone’s backs up, but he does eventually prompt the others to speak up and speculate… Each of the men has a different hypothesis – some thinking what’s happening in Vichy is an extension of the ‘transportation’ rumours involving the Jewish community, while others ‘rationalise’ the damning ‘circumstantial’ evidence.
The tension between the men is palpable, as they are torn between keeping a cool head and hoping for the best, and facing the unthinkable. Some of the characters aren’t meant to be very talkative, so it would seem unfair to highlight only the most verbose actors. However, worthy of note are Henry Wyrley-Birch’s Leduc, whose measured rhetoric sifts through the most hardened of opinions; PK Taylor’s Monceu, the eternal optimist; Brendan O’Rourke’s Bayard whose philosophical perspective sets him apart from the others; and Edward Killingback’s Von Berg, whose quiet demeanour conversely has the most weight and power to chill.
By staging the play in a neutral, white set, Vichy takes on a timeless Kafkaesque quality, rather than an event in a specific time and place. If this sounds too ‘serene’, the volume and sonorous quality of the room’s metal door closing is akin to gunfire, which doesn’t fail to set the audience on edge…
Plays of this calibre are all too rare, especially off-West End with such a large cast. Its message of ‘looking into the Abyss’ and seeing with clarity what is happening in the world around us is especially relevant today – as is the responsibility to act, regardless of the suppression of truth or position of privilege.
© Michael Davis 2017
Incident At Vichy runs at the King’s Head Theatre until 25th June 2017.