Versailles*** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: April 5, 2014 in Theatre

versaillesIt is often said that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles both ended the First World War and started the Second, but Peter Gill’s new play takes that viewpoint even further by arguing that the short-sighted and self-interested actions of politicians at that time set the course for World political, economic and social developments throughout the remaining four fifths of the Twentieth Century. The play is intelligent, engrossing and beautifully written, but its content is too huge to take in on one visit; it needs to be read through afterwards and herein lies one of the problem with it – it is often more a history lesson than a drama. Acts I and III take place in the drawing room of an affluent upper middle class household in Kent. Act II is set in Paris during the negotiations for the Treaty. The central character is Leonard Rawlinson (a simply superb performance by Gwilym Lee), a young civil servant working for the British Government on the Treaty; he is a gay man and many of his developing ideas are articulated in conversations with his dead lover (Tom Hughes), lost in the War. The central theme of a young man working on an historic document that he believes to be fundamentally flawed and then trying to adjust his own life to conform with his progressive ideals is a great one and, when this theme comes to the fore, the play soars. However, Gill clutters his script with too many subsidiary characters who come and go without registering and too many sub-plots that serve only to detract from the main themes. At over three hours (including two intervals) the play is much too long anyway and several sheets of the script belong in the shredder. Also, the political and social discussion is much too wide and generalised. It is very difficult to see how a man speaking in 1919 could foresee conflicts in South East Asia, religious tensions in the Middles East, the rise of Socialism in Britain, women’s and gay liberation, etc, etc. This is self-indulgent writing by Gill, who is expounding his own views from the perspective of the 21st Century, but undermining the credibility of his main character and blurring the play’s focus. The production has an opulent feel and is impeccably acted by a cast headed by grande dames Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn as family matriarchs. Notwithstanding all the criticisms, there are moments, particularly in the deeply moving final Act, when it feels as if there is a masterpiece struggling to surface, and those moments will live in the memory long after the play as a whole is forgotten

Performance date: 4 April 2014

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