REVIEW: Versailles, Donmar Warehouse ✭✭✭✭


Donmar Warehouse
6 March 2013
4 Stars

If George Bernard Shaw had cared to write a play about the machinations surrounding the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and the shattering effect World War One had on England, it might have, but for one thing, looked and sounded a lot like Peter Gill’s fascinating and absorbing play, Versailles, currently playing at the Donmar in a production beautifully directed by Gill.

Gill’s play is intriguing and thoughtful, a kind of memory play, but also a love story and a tale of class warfare. It’s quite didactic in parts and, occasionally, seems too knowing, in that the actual events of the past 100 years are predicted or thought about by characters from 1919.

But, actually, that is the point. Gill looks not just at the historical moment, but also uses the conceit of the play to examine notions about acceptance, tolerance, rejection and foresight. The past and the present and the future are all entwined in this masterful work, each illuminating the other aspects. History might repeat itself, but so does the future.

History scholars will tell you that John Maynard Keynes resigned over decisions made in Paris in 1919 which were designed to punish Germany and keep it broken, unable to cause trouble. Keynes thought the punishment was too harsh, that the economic slaughter of Germany in the name of peace would lead to further conflict.

That there was further conflict we know. Whether the Treaty of Versailles and its terms helped cause that is a matter about which debate still rages.

Gill’s play is in three Acts. The first occurs in Kent, at the Rawlinson family home. The eldest child, Leonard, is about to go to Paris, a civil servant working on the arrangements for dealing with Germany’s coal resources. His sister is proposed to by the young man, Hugh, who has been to war and is waiting to be released from duty. Their friends, the Chaters, are grieving, having lost their son Gerald, a soldier killed at the Front.

Act Two moves the action to Paris, where Leonard is trying to persuade his superiors that the sanctions against Germany are too tough. He fails to persuade them.

In Act Three, Leonard returns to Kent, having resigned from the civil service. He is angry and frustrated and rails against his conservative Tory family and friends. His sister refuses Hugh’s hand in marriage. After a few too many drinks, the whole extended family argue about what is important in life, what values are worth having and fighting for. Gerald’s father loses his composure, breaking down over the loss of his son. He accepts his son is gone for good – and that acceptance has consequences for everyone else.

So, the first Act is about hope and the future; the second about practicality and the present; the third about consequences, the past and the future. The final scene of the play shows an episode prior to the commencement of the first Act: the moment when Gerald left for war.

For Gerald and Leonard were secret lovers, although Leonard broke it off before Gerald went to war, and indeed that might be why Gerald did go to war. To escape. To die. For Leonard, the decision not to kiss Gerald goodbye that day would haunt him; and across the three Acts there are scenes where the ghost of Gerald visits Leonard to test him, to debate with him, to share his life.

Because Leonard will not let him go and regrets his decision not to try and make their relationship work despite its difficulties (Gerald was promiscuous) – in the very same way that Leonard will not let go his conviction that the coal sanctions against Germany were oppressive and the Treaty could have been better, fairer, less capricious. Just as Leonard had not looked ahead to consider life with Gerald whatever his faults, so the Allies had failed to look ahead to consider how Germany would cope with and react to its punishment.

Hugh is a bit of a non-entity, a happy gormless sort who just wants to marry Mabel and goes cheerily off to war to do his duty and, perhaps, to convince Mabel he is worth her hand. Alas, she is not interested, but the pressures from her mother to do the right thing and her sense that it would be unfair to decline the proposal during and in the immediate aftermath of the war hold her tongue. Hugh is understandably devastated – he came, after enduring an horrendous conflict, to negotiate a union and after waiting months he is crushed, his prospects irreparably changed. He seeks refuge with an old school mate who is slowly recovering from the war, another who heard a shell explode.

So, in many ways, Hugh represents Germany at the Treaty negotiations and the Rawlinsons and the Chaters represent the Allies – all sure of their positions, but unaware or uncaring of their consequences.

Gill manages all of this and still makes one think that the play is a gentle, slightly comical look at a family drama. It’s deft, ingenious and quite brilliant.

As is the casting.

Josh O’Connor is superb as Hugh, making a fully fleshed, utterly beguiling character out of very little. He communicates his sense of being thoroughly crushed by Mabel perfectly, without histrionics or effort. It’s a stellar performance.

Gwilym Lee makes Leonard throb with intelligence, charm and, eventually, rage. He is uniformly excellent, but his scenes with Tom Hughes’ ghost Gerald are quite divine, full of nuance and sadness – and love. Their final scene, the awkward farewell before Gerald’s departure for war, is impossibly real, achingly touching. Hughes is perfect: virile, energetic, jaunty and more alive dead than some other characters are alive.

Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn are marvellous as the two mothers. Flynn’s pinched, haunted, grieving-but-not-showing-it mother is especially wonderful; her unmasked contempt for Leonard when he announces his resignation from the civil service is subtly done. Annis’s Edith is desperate to cling to the past, to a place she thinks she knows.

Christopher Godwin shines as Gerald’s father and the moment where he crumbles and cries for his lost son is shattering, representing, as it does, the lament for the past. Flynn gets a similar moment, but her distress is for the future. The loss of their son, possible or real, is devastating to each – but for different reasons. Fear and Regret. One can only wonder the grief either would experience had they known of their son’s love for Leonard.

There are no weak links in the cast but Edward Skillingback’s civil servant Henry and Helen Bradbury’s independent thinking Constance are especially good.

Richard Hudson’s design is delightful, and the sense of period is deliciously judged. The Rawlinson family is under financial pressure and this shows in the slightly faded furniture, upholstery and costumes. The set is alive with the sense of clinging to the past.

Paul Pyant’s lighting is excellent, well, assuming that the use of shadows on the proceedings is as deliberate as it seems to be. The shadows act to infuse the action with the sense of memory, of hidden things, of light lost forever. The effect, whether conscious or not, is an integral part of the play.

Gill uses music and dance as a motif throughout the play, a very effective one which adds to the sense of memory and nostalgia which provides the comfort zone for this most uncomfortable of plays. The swirling images of the cast dancing or at least moving gracefully through the set and around it creates a clear sense of the vortex of history and of the way facts, hopes and deceit intertwine to create reality.

This is the sort of play the Donmar is famous for. An instant classic.

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