Writer/Director: Peter Gill
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
The last play to be directed by Peter Gill at the Donmar was Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly, a triptych of war-themed, decades-spanning mini-dramas. Now, in this 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of WWI, with a multitude of books, docs and revivals centering on the conflict, Gill returns to the subject of war – and to the Donmar – with the self-penned new play Versailles, which explores the fortunes of two Kent families, the Rawlinsons and the Chaters, directly after the Great War.
The play’s first and final Acts unfold in the well-appointed Rawlinson drawing-room, where the family and sundry friends and neighbours are shown attempting to adjust to the peace and wondering about the future, as well as sympathising with the Chaters, who lost a son, Gerald, on the battlefield. The second Act follows the Rawlinson son, Leonard, to Paris, where he’s among the British delegates sent to advise on negotiations for the Versailles treaty. Haunted by memories of Gerald, who was, unbeknownst to the two men’s families, his lover, Leonard finds himself questioning the development of the negotiations in Paris, and wondering whether the talks will result in a sustained peace.
Gill has written a boldly, almost ostentatiously, old-fashioned drama in Versailles: it’s not hard to envisage the play as a prestige prime-time BBC series, circa 1976. That’s not meant as a put-down, though. With a three hour running time (including two intervals) and a lot of talk, this isn’t a play for everyone and it’s likely to get dismissed as a dry and dusty old affair in some quarters.
But I, for one, found the piece fairly absorbing. There are indeed long-winded moments (ones that a director other than the playwright himself might well have snipped) and at its weakest the drama is simply stewed in rhetoric: characters sit or stand about articulating various political positions. Gill clearly has a lot on his mind here – post-war attitudes to gender, race, imperialism, and, especially (and tediously) class are all touched upon – and the result is excessive verbosity that can feel contrived. In addition, some of the chatter sounds like a calculated attempt to get laughs by flagging up contemporary parallels. “In English politics the centre is always to the right,” a character remarks at one point (to hearty guffaws) while Mrs. Rawlinson pauses to muse: “Democracy…Such an un-English word.”
Beneath the self-conscious sub-Shavian soapboxing the play has heart, though, and, at its strongest, some interesting, insightful things to say about the personal and political fallout of a conflict that you may feel has already been dramatised and documented enough. Happily, no real-life figures are introduced, and, playing out on a nicely detailed set by Richard Hudson, the production keeps faith with the details and nuances of “ordinary” middle-class life.
It also benefits from some fine performances. The rather colourless Leonard may seem a problematic protagonist, and his sudden leap into an oratorical mode towards the end isn’t convincing, but Gwilym Lee brings a fine restraint, with suggestions of repressed passion, to the rôle. His encounters with the ghostly Gerald are somewhat problematic, since Gill has written too much smart alecky loquaciousness into the latter character, but Tom Hughes plays him with assurance.
Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn are pitch-perfect as the matriarchs, the exquisite Annis all social graciousness, Flynn sharper and brisker yet still sympathetic when surprised by a kindly gesture. Helen Bradbury and Tamla Kari are vivid as the younger generation of women, facing new challenges and embracing new rôles, and Josh O’Connor is adorable and touching as a rejected suitor. Selina Griffiths brings wonderful comic style to her rôle as the woman in charge of Leonard’s Paris office, and a gruff Simon Williams pulls off a show-offy speech about the middle-classes with panache.
Not every character gets their due (I could’ve used more of Christopher Godwin as Gerald’s grief-stricken pater) but the actors ensure that the production feels fully inhabited and bring as much truth as possible to the play’s windier stretches. And while the tone is, for the most part, unsentimental, Gill cuts through the speech-making at the last with a haunting flashback coda that ambushes the viewer with unexpected emotion.
Photo: Johan Persson | Runs until 5th April