Thanks to the persuasive pen of John Maynard Keynes, the story of the Versailles Treaty and its role in destabilising Germany between the wars is common knowledge. Rather too common, given that placing such a heavy burden of blame on reparations for facilitating the Third Reich is questionable and provides a handy excuse for those seeking to exculpate German responsibility for electing Hitler and the havoc that ensued.
Peter Gill’s treatment of the subject in a new play, Versailles, at the Donmar Warehouse gives Keynes’s view an uncritical outing. Praise where it is due: it takes determination and thoughtfulness to bring a treaty to the stage. Gill’s Shavian interest in the period shines through an otherwise over-wordy drama. His work has often focused on familial settings and adaptations, and his dialogue is most at ease in the languid Kent drawing-room where an upper-middle-class family, friends and various social flotsam meet to discuss the consequences of the peace. The son of the house, Leonard Rawlinson (a twitchily ambitious Gwilym Lee), is heading to Paris as part of the British delegation to draw up the treaty, pursued by memories of his fiery, feckless lover Gerald (Tom Hughes), who perished in the trenches but returns in ghostly form to challenge the pieties of Versailles and the sense of the war that took his life.
At the heart of the play lurks the abiding question: how great a toll should victors extract after a military conflict? The answer to Gill is as clear as it was to Keynes: the allies, having fought the war to end all war, were now forging what one fellow critic dubbed “the peace to end all peace”.
The trouble with this case is that it is as glib as it is historically suspect. Keynes probably overestimated the impact of reparations exacted on the Saarland, and Gill’s determination to link an argument about coal prices in Germany with the hardship of County Durham miners feels unduly forced.
The result is an intelligent but unchallenging reworking of the Versailles conundrum, longer and more involuted than need be. At the midway point of its three hours it reminded your critic of the toast given by Myfanwy Piper celebrating 40 years of marriage to her tetchy artist husband, John: “I can safely say that I have enjoyed every other minute of it.”
Some of the play’s minutes are touching. Francesca Annis, as Leonard’s mother Edith, is staunch in her belief that a return to normality, rectitude and the correct tea rituals will exorcise the spectres of the trenches, and brings warmth to family arguments which veer oddly into geopolitics at the drop of a sugar-tong.
A puzzle lingers: namely why Gill did not just identify Leonard as Keynes, seeing as he has been invested with nearly all of his views and even enjoys dalliance with a young male German as if to underline the point. The flaw—beyond questionable economic history—is that it asks a lot of even the most “told you so” modern theatregoer, to invest an averagely bright young official in 1919 with 20/20 foresight without getting a bit fed-up with his cocksure preachiness.
In this centenary year, numerous events will attempt to wring their points out of the great disaster of the Great War. Often, the pathos lurks in the detail, not the tub-thumping. Gill’s expertise in Versailles is the portrayal of male suffering in a gesture or omission. Josh O’Connor excels here as Hugh Skidmore, the war-torn suitor of Leonard’s flighty sister, his face fixed in a petrified smile, anticipating rejection and stuttering excuses for his inability to talk about the conflict. His is a fine study in unacknowledged trauma—the emotional heart of the story. Unlike the main thesis, it rings completely true.
If Versailles feels like a descendant of the “well-made play”, its emotional power hidden, Rattigan-like, under the ostensible themes of war and high politics, 1984 at London’s Almeida might be placed in a time capsule as an example of the tastes and interpretations of political drama in 2014.
Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have adapted Orwell’s well-trodden dystopia, melding his Newspeak glossary into the dialogue—pretty smoothly, it should be said. The programme is festooned with leading quotes which suggest that what Orwell was predicting was something bad happening to Edward Snowden. Telling audiences that their pet worries are dead ringers for Orwell’s is an old trick, but one which grates. Winston Smith’s problem was not the nicety of how much meta-data democracies should hold, nor a vague concern that too many people can get hold of your records through Google algorithms.
Hysteria of the wrong kind throughout the play undermines the attempt to make Winston (Mark Arends) into more than the sum of all fears. Something else bothered me. Orwell wrote his novel in 1948 and turned Britain into Airstrip One, a province of Oceania. Without this sense of Englishness under the heel of Big Brother, nothing makes much emotional sense.
Technically this is the kind of production the Almeida under Rupert Goold does very well, an offspring of the (far-superior) Chimerica, and similar use of computer-generated images alternating with a pared-back set. But an overall chilliness undermines the sense that the doomed lovers are having more than a casual fling.
In such matters, the fundamental things apply, as Sam so rightly said of another ill-fated duo. Unfortunately it was hard to care whether Julia (Hara Yannas) betrayed Winston or the other way round, or whether the system, as Winston’s tormentor points out in Room 101, is simply designed to make sure that they both do.
The production is transferring shortly to the West End, proof that a lot of critics liked it far better than I did. Either go and tell me that I am wrong, or save yourself the trouble and re-read the original. George nailed it first time round, without the strobe lighting.