Versailles on stage

Peter Gill's fine play

In January 1918, delegates from 27 nations arrived in Paris to attempt to decide upon both the amount of reparations that a devastated country could be realistically expected to pay, and to ensure that Germany was in no position to regain her former military strength. Back at home (at least, this is the image offered in Peter Gill's magnificent new play), families and friends argued over the rights and wrongs of reparations with the passions applied in pre-war Paris to the issue of the Dreyfus trial.

Historical record suggests that families did no such thing, and that the subject of Versailles was less discussed in such middleclass familiy homes as that shown in Gill's play than personal bereavement and the struggle to maintain a near-Edwardian style of life in the harsh new light of post-war economics. While no evidence exists to show that young men of the type of Leonard Rawlinson (beautifully played by Gwilym Lee) did use personal knowledge of Germany's economic dependence on coal to plead for less punitive measures in the Treaty, it's clear that Gill is drawing up on the well-documented activities of the young Maynard Keynes, who did resign, return home, and dramatically publish his hostile opinion of the Treaty.  

A three hour play that simply paid scrupulous detail to the historical facts would achieve nothing that a documentary could not do as well, or better. But Gill has produced something that is both more beguiling and more provocative: a reimagining of events that brings together the tattered cosiness of English county life in 1919 with a wonderful portrait of a backroom at Versailles that perfectly captures the terrible mixture of frivolity and deep sincerity with which world-changing events in Paris were taking place.

Peter Gill, now 74, directs the play himself. For me, having spent the past five years immersed in writing about the history of England's friendship with Germany, as seen through the eyes of a multitude of characters, the best treat came first.  Arriving early, I walked alone into the Donmar stalls and found myself standing - the stage embraces the audience and draws them in with cunningly placed passages and bookshelves - in a drawing-room that could come straight from Forster or Priestley.

This - the Rawlinson family's home - is the scene for most of the play. The plot is not complicated. The Rawlinsons' son, Leonard, is due to go to Versailles. His sister Mabel (Tamla Kari) is unable to commit to the young soldier (Josh o'Connor) who has returned for her, having survived the war, despite the stern imperiousness of her widowed mother (beautifully played by Francesca Annis). Leonard, idealistic, conscientious and a little grim, is unable to share the devastation he personally feels about the death at the front of their neighbour's handsome son, Gerald Chater. Possibly, the two young men became homosexually involved shortly before Chater left home for good; certainly, they loved each other. Throughout the play, and bringing to it an extraordinary charisma with his undeniably sexual presence, Gerald (Tom Hughes, deliberately made to look like Wilfrid Owen), returns to Leonard: taunting, pacing, menacing and challenging, Hughes's performance, beautifully counterpointing the pained, cerebral playing of Leonard by Gwilym Lee, is what gives the play its excitement and its edge. He is more palpably real and alive than any other character.  This, clearly, is intended. The perfomance and the half-veiled relationship of these two men is what held the audience still as rabbits in the headlights.

Other characterisations might seem, perhaps, a little too theatrically neat. Mabel's friend Constance Fitch (Helen Bradley) is the clever, conscientious feminist who works in a London bookshop and will eventually, plainly, become the goodhumoured and outspoken wife of the local squire and peacekeeper (Adrian Lukis). Gerlad's mother rattles off a stream of stereotypical remarks about Jews, blacks, racial purity and so on, principally, it seems, to provide something for Leonard to make a stand against. Yet, her ranting is convincing, and it does highlight the fact that Germany was not the only country to be harbouring extremist views of this kind during the 1920s. On the home front, however, it is the performances by Lee and Hughes that hold the audience spellbound. Theatrically, this relationship stands alongside the extraordinary realisations of homo-erotic passion evoked in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy and also in Alan Hollinghurst's mesmerising The Stranger's Child.

For the centre of a longish play (it lasts three hours, with - unprecedented for the Donmar, so far as I know - two intervals), the action moves to Paris. The setting - from the memoirs of the time that I have read - comes uncannily close to that of the old British Embassies during the post war years, at a time when the British Ambassador to Berlin used to invite a clever young German lawyer in to play badminton in the ballroom, while Ribbentrop waited in the lobby with his wine merchandise. My own grandfather's memoirs of pre-war Berlin describe duskily lit rooms with young attaches typing out their own notes, music off while the evening's theatricals were rehearsed, the ambassador (Sir Frank Lascelles) puffing on a Turkish cigarette at his paper-laden buhl desk off through a doorway.

Gill gives us just such a setting, adding to the scene a brisk and less idealistic young colleague for Leonard (Edward Killingback), a no-nonsense female commander of the office  (splendidly played by Angela Isham) and a well-meaning but helpless visitor from the upper levels of the conference (Simon Williams). Here, while the focus is on the defeat of Leonard's valiant attempts to modify the reparations regarding the Saar basin and Silesia (Germany's main sources for the crucial coal industry), we also glimpse the world to come in the brisk outlining of new interests in the Middle East: 'petroleum' is a word that Leonard parses out as if it was - indeed - a peculiarly unpleasant chemical jelly. Palestine is briefly glanced at as a home for what is judged to be the modest number of Jews likely to required a new home. Ironies, pitched to be recognised by the better-informed audience, are abundant.

The central section of the play, while crucial to the balance and subject, could take a good pruning and be none the worse for it. I would have liked to have seen some reference to England's crucial contribution of the war-guilt clause (a source of enduring regret to its composer, an exhausted and overwrought  Philip Lothian): the Clause 231 that ascribed full blame for the war to a country that would later significantly reject that responsibility. Setting this aside, Versailles is an exceptional contribution to the ongoing reflections upon what happened in the past and what might have been more wisely done. I do hope Peter Gill's wonderful three act drama gets a transfer. It needs still to be on stage in 2019, that fateful forthcoming centenary of the occasion on which a devastated country was punished, and required to pay an entirely unrealistic penalty of £6,600 million.  In terms of stagecraft and performances and intellectual fodder, there is nothing better on stage at this particular moment in London's theatres than Gill's Versailles.

   Added: Thursday 03 April 2014