Even with the subject of Arthur Miller’s rarely seen play, and the paralysing fear experienced by his characters, there’s a whiff of a joke about it.
A gypsy, a psychologist, a waiter, an actor, a painter, a Communist electrician, an Austrian prince and a businessman are not in a bar, but a police station in Vichy France. Each has been plucked somewhat randomly from the street.
The hope that this is merely a routine identity check becomes harder to sustain when they are joined by an elderly, bearded Jew. Even more so when a tense exchange between an officious “professor of racial anthropology” and a world-weary German army officer reveals that the checks involve detainees dropping their trousers to reveal whether they have been circumcised.
Written in 1964, this was Miller’s first attempt to take on the Holocaust. Perhaps if he hadn’t become so well known for the well-made, multi-act drama, it would have been seen less as a sketch and more as the fully formed piece that Phil Willmott’s superbly acted production reveals it to be.
Designer Georgia de Grey sets it in a featureless white cube, giving Miller’s moral enquiry the quality of a laboratory experiment. In just one act it is not so much the barbarity of the Nazis that is revealed but the anti-logic of their intention. The resources sucked up by their genocidal plans are not a waste but, to them, evidence of the nobility and sacrifice of their cause.
Outstanding performances include Edward Killingback as the vulgarity-phobic Austrian aristo, PK Taylor as the incredulous thesp with misplaced faith in German culture and Lawrence Boothman as the artist Lebeau whose fear appears to have infected every molecule of his body. But they are all good.