Incident at Vichy
King’s Head Theatre
Opening Night – 9th June 2017
“An intensely moving drama with powerful cast performances”
Arthur Miller was an American playwright known for writing amongst others, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman and A View from the Bridge as well for being married to Marilyn Monroe. A lesser known work written in 1964 entitled Incident at Vichy is now playing at the Kings Head Theatre following a successful run at The Finborough earlier this year.
From 1940 to 1942, whilst Germany occupied northern France, Vichy France represented the unoccupied “Free Zone” that governed the southern part of the country. Vichy agreed to reduce its military forces and give gold, food, and supplies to Germany. French police were ordered to round up Jews and other “undesirables” such as communists, gypsies and political refugees.
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PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT RYLANDER
This play looks at how a group of men react having been pulled off the streets for interrogation purposes during the early days of the alliance between the Vichy government and the Nazis. They sit squashed together on a white narrow bench in a white otherwise unremarkable room.
The characters are generally given basic names such as Gypsy, Boy, Old Jew, Waiter but represent a cross section of people affected by the changes in the country in which they live and now feel vulnerable.
All struggle to understand why they are there even though they quickly realise other than the Gypsy and an Austrian Prince, the other detainees are Jewish who fled to Vichy from the northern half of France. None are keen to enter any kind of conversation. However an artist chatters nervously in panic of what possibly lies ahead. This slowly forces others to engage with or to avoid him. His worries over the validity of his identity papers cause others to reveal the uncertainty of their own fate.
The atmosphere becomes increasingly bleak as rumours begin to be exchanged including that people are being transported to camps with furnaces in particular to burn Jews. It is hard for some to believe such an abhorrent act to be possible.
The collective hope that this identity check is just a routine one becomes harder to accept when an elderly, bearded Jew comes in. He speaks no words yet his obvious terror is clear to see. What isn’t apparently obvious is what he is clutching. It transpires to be a feather pillow which features strongly in Jewish folklore – each feather represents a rumour or secret that once left a mouth you do not know where it ends up and you can never get it back.
The tension mounts as the men share information, fears and ways to convince their interrogator or indeed to escape the room. The group gets smaller as few return from being interrogated. It is revealed that a decision about their fate is based whether they have been circumcised.
The whole play makes for uncomfortable watching for even if the viewer doesn’t have much knowledge of Vichy history they will understand the implications of marginalisation and The Holocaust.
Each actor, whether they have much or nothing to say, portrays their part with powerful credibility. It forces the audience to consider how awful it would have been to be in that time and place.
It is exceptionally well written and today resonates with events we are currently experiencing. Donald Trump recently said he was open to the idea for Muslims in the US to register on a database. How different then from Jews having to register in Nazi Germany?
Phil Willmott’s direction drives the tension and Theo Holloway’s sound brings an added menace to the work in particular with the slamming of the interrogation room door.
The only disappointment of the evening was that the theatre was oppressively hot and it did slightly distract from an otherwise excellent night out.