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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2004

Incident at Vichy
Smirnoff Underbelly

Munira Mirza

The German occupation of France during the Second World War is a powerful setting to explore the themes of guilt and complicity with the forces of authority.

Arthur Miller's one act play about a group of men awaiting 'inspection' by German officers inside the Vichy regime is a study of the choices an individual can make against historical forces playing themselves out around him. Written in 1964, Miller's script recalls a historical period still within the playwright's recent memory, but which simultaneously provides insight into the witch-hunt under McCarthyism in America. In both worlds, the individual is faced with the decision about how to act; either passively to conform in the hope of survival, or to struggle against authority with risk of danger.

In Incident at Vichy the characters argue and cajole each other to act in the face of the unknown. Each man has been pulled off the street, not sure why he has been targeted. The businessman is convinced of the routine nature of the inspection, certain of the rationality of the law. The poet is hysterical and afraid his Jewish identity will indict him. The socialist and the psychologist realise their fate and courageously argue for resistance. The aristocrat speaks mournfully of the vulgarity of the Nazis and the possibility of human nobility in the face of self-interest. Each character hopes to convince the others, aware that they can only act to survive together.

Miller makes the choice facing the characters highly absorbing. We know the fate of the Jew under the Nazis in abstract already, but in this play, the decision to fight remains a difficult one. All of the characters have something to lose if they attempt an escape and straightforward acquiescence at least offers some hope of release. Monceau, the Jewish actor, refuses to fight the guards and make an escape because he cannot conceive of the Germans' cruelty and the irrationality of their imprisonment. As one character points out to him, the Germans rely on the fact that they will silence themselves: 'Your heart is conquered territory, mister'. Complicity is the main weapon of the enemy. It is only principle and faith in the nobility of man that gives the central characters, the doctor and the aristocrat a reason to fight.

The Nazis also become more terrifying in the play as their own lack of agency is revealed. The Major is nervous, and guilty about the nature of the inspections but when pushed by a prisoner, becomes excessively defensive. The aristocrat observes of the Germans, 'the less you exist, the more you have to make an impression'. It is the insecurity of Nazism that gives rise to violence and vulgarity. Both victims and persecutors are trapped in a system where they find little room for resistance.

The production is tightly controlled and well acted, bringing to life an absorbing and compelling script.

Till 30 August

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