The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. That phrase has always sent a chill down my spine as it’s so true. Seven decades have passed since the Nazis marched through Europe. Had the rest of the world sat back and done nothing, who knows where Adolf Hitler’s vile ambitions might have ended?
Director Phil Willmott has brought Incident at Vichy back to a London stage for the first time in 50 years. In 2015, Willmott was disturbed by rolling news of Trump’s election rallies during which Trump asserted that he would implement a database for all Muslims in the USA to register. When he was challenged about how that would be different to Jews having to register in Nazi Germany, Trump responded: ‘You tell me.’ We’re living in a challenging time for world politics. How often has it been questioned as to how those alive at the time of the Nazi’s rise to power simply did nothing? Willmott recognised that Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy ‘seemed to burn with a topicality which demanded a revival.’
An American Jew, Arthur Miller’s first four plays (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge) all highlighted everyday American’s values, and were set in the USA. In the 1960s, Miller had met his third wife, Inge Morath. From Austria, her parents had been members of the Nazi party (pressurised to join through fear) and, having visited Mauthausen concentration camp in Salzburg, had been moved to tears. In the 1960s Miller was amidst the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. Racial inequality was no longer being tolerated and Miller clearly wanted to open the eyes of his audiences. Evil did not start and end with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Incident at Vichy challenges the viewer to recognise that every powerful country has discriminated on the grounds of race: America and ‘its treatment of negroes’, Britain and Indians, etc. All humans are deeply flawed by the need to feel superiority over another. Miller wants our heads drawn out of the sand, and to admit that inherent racism exists.
In December 1964 Miller premiered Incident at Vichy at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre, New York City. This powerful story, inspired by a true account playwright Arthur Miller had been told regarding men detained in Vichy France where a gentile gave his papers to a Jew, allowing him to go free.
The action begins in a detention room of a Vichy police station in 1942, where eight men have been hauled in off the streets. None are told why they are held, or when they can leave. Little do they realise that they have done no wrong. Their crime is to simply exist.
Throughout this one act 85-minute play tension is palpable. Ten men sit uncomfortably squashed together on a narrow white bench. First introduced to Lebeau, an artist, (Lawrence Boothman’s performance excellently conveys the agonising fear one would feel were we forced to swap places) chatters nervously in panic. His nose was measured by the officer who picked him up. As he anxiously sweats over his identity papers, slowly, each and every man in the room is revealed to be just as uncertain of his fate. Miller highlights the vicious indignity these men suffered, at the very base level as they realise they’re about to have their penises inspected.
Lebeau clashes with Bayard, an electrician (stoic yet emotively portrayed by Brendan O’Rourke) and a communist. He’s seen a train packed with Jews, sent to work in Poland. As rumours are exchanged amongst the men, a waiter reveals what he’s overheard. They are not ‘work’ camps, the Nazis are using furnaces to burn Jews. The horror is too much to take for Monceau, an actor (PK Taylor), who refuses to believe such an abhorrent reality to be possible. The men’s conversation grows increasingly bleak as, one by one, they are called to the clinic to be examined… and none return.
Whille Monceau clings to ignorance he is challenged by a doctor, Leduc (Henry Wyrley-Birch) who’s been in hiding in the countryside until this foolish trip into the town. All too aware of the depths of depravity to which the human race can sink. His desperation sees him challenge the German Major (James Boyd) who shows that he’s also human, he holds regret… but he has no choice but to carry out his orders.
Each of Miller’s characters are purposefully obvious. They are to serve as symbols. Some aren’t even given names, just labels. Old Jew. Boy. Gypsy. Their plight is no less real and each of them bring a worthy presence to the stage, even if their lines range from few and far between to heartbreaking silence.
The Nazis were attempting to destroy all the beauty in the world. As each man is called to meet his Fate, those who don’t pass the Professor’s test are not seen again. Will anyone amongst the ten men stand up for what is right? Are we all instinctively out to save our own skins?
The Austrian Prince Von Berg (Edward Killingback) who’s been mistakenly rounded up is at first feeble, believing he does not have strength to help overturn the guards. Ultimately, he realises his strength lies in his good character, and so the culmination of the show’s message leaves us with a glimmer of hope. If one man can stand up against the atrocity, if one man can escape… there’s a future for humanity yet.
As for our part, as the audience? The very least we can do is open the conversation, and be aware of past mistakes. Today’s politics is tomorrow’s history, and we must not sit impassively to the events of the world around us.
Hopefully it won’t take another 50 years to grace a London stage but see it while you can.
Cast: Gethin Alderman, Lawrence Boothman, James Boyd, Andro Crespo, Daniel Dowling, Paul Easom, Jeremy Gagan, Timothy Harker, Edward Killingback, Brendan O’Rourke, Michael Skellern, PK Taylor, Henry Wyrley-Birch Director: Phil Willmott Writer: Arthur Miller Theatre: King’s Head Dates: 7th – 25th June 2017