Versailles – March 2014

Experience: 7/10

Written and directed by Peter Gill

Venue: Donmar

Date: Thursday 20th March 2014

Steve rated this higher than me – 8/10 – but I found some aspects of the play rather dull and not totally in line with the rest of the piece. Still, the discussions about the Versailles Treaty were interesting, and there was plenty of period detail and humour to enhance the otherwise dry nature of the subject matter. And Leonard’s passion about the fate of the Saar coalfields in Germany brought out the importance of this treaty in laying the groundwork for WWII. It was mainly the homosexual relationship between Leonard and Gerald which I felt was out of place in terms of the play’s scope – why was this relationship between Leonard and Gerald’s ghost relevant to the time, the subject or the rest of the play?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected much from a Peter Gill play; Small Change, which we saw in 2008, bored us both with its pretentiousness, so judged against that standard this was a terrific experience! On my limited experience of his writing, it seems that Peter Gill views the world through a homosexual lens, and while that’s a valid perspective it does seem to restrict him as a writer. As a director he’s fine, and we’ve enjoyed a number of his productions, but I may have to be more picky in future when it comes to his writing.

The set for the first act was an impeccable Edwardian drawing room, with a bench sofa, individual chairs, various small tables, a carved folding screen in the corner and a potted palm behind the sofa. There was a suggestion of India in the décor, and the large carpet with a floral design looked oriental to me. To add to the effect, there was a tall bookcase in the corner by the right-hand entranceway at the front and a picture hanging on the wall by the left-hand entrance.

The opening act began with Edith and Mabel Rawlinson. Edith was mother to both Mabel and Leonard, and from their discussion it became clear that the war was several months over and yet there were lots of young men still waiting to be demobbed. Leonard was home and about to leave for Paris while Mabel’s intended, Hugh, was due to go back to his regiment shortly. Constance Fitch, a friend of the Rawlinsons through Hugh, was staying with the family and soon joined Mabel and her mother, and with the arrival of Leonard, Hugh, Geoffrey – an old family friend, neighbour and staunch “country Conservative” – and Mrs Chater, another neighbour who had lost her son Gerald in the war, the discussion broadened to cover the impending peace treaty negotiations.

Leonard was involved in supporting the British team of negotiators through his knowledge of coal production. He expressed the idea that ruining Germany financially would be in nobody’s interests, and that was apparently Lloyd George’s view as well, for all the punitive rhetoric used in the election campaign. Mrs Chater was naturally keen to see the Germans punished for starting the war that killed her son, while Geoffrey was more practical, seeing the advantage of keeping Germany solvent enough to do business with in the future, and aware that every party to the treaty would be looking to serve their own interests. Constance turned out to be a pacifist, while Hugh was covering up his PTSD by appearing to be a bluff, hearty sort of cove who didn’t have much of an opinion either way.

While it might have seemed odd to have such a conversation over tea and cake, I felt that this was a likely scenario, especially after the First World War. Away from the horrors of the front, the civilians would have naturally talked a fair bit about what was happening, at least those snippets of news they were allowed to know, and it would have continued on afterwards with all the uncertainty about the future. It would be nice to watch something like this written at the time, but this scene worked well, with a variety of views being expressed and characters being developed without any sense of being lectured or preached at. I was certainly aware of Geoffrey’s interest in Constance and her strong liking for Leonard, though once Mrs Chater had mentioned the letters which Leonard had written to Gerald – she wanted to know if Leonard wanted them back – I was confident that Constance wasn’t Leonard’s ‘type’.

Sure enough, as soon as he was on his own, Gerald’s ‘ghost’, dressed in military uniform, came on stage to have a chat with Leonard. Steve thought that Gerald might be Leonard’s alter ego; he certainly wasn’t his conscience, as Gerald was as conscience-free as you could wish. The gist of their ‘conversations’ over the play seemed to be the sense of loss, of what might have been if the war hadn’t gotten in the way. Gerald also made acerbic comments about the situation regarding the peace treaty – a useful commentator who could say what he liked – but as these sections of dialogue didn’t come across well to me, I would have preferred to have had much less of Gerald and more of the other characters.

Leonard and Gerald’s tête à tête was interrupted by Mabel, and after that there was a slightly strange walkabout bit where various characters whom we had already seen walked through the stage and left without interacting. The lights then went out and they took the first interval. This walkabout effect was used to bookend each of the acts, and I have no idea what it was intended to convey.

During the interval the set was changed to Leonard’s office in Paris, which he shared with another civil servant, Henry. Two desks stood back to back in the middle of the stage and end-on to us in the middle of row C. A cabinet stood beside them, and to the left was a clothes horse with maps draped over it. There were several chairs about the place, including the two for the desks, two waste paper baskets and some piles of papers in a corner which I didn’t notice till they came to change the set at the end of the act. The waste paper baskets were an important feature; according to Angela, the two men’s assistant, they could improve security by tearing confidential papers in half and splitting the results between the two bins!

This scene was where we learned most of the details about the Versailles Treaty, naturally enough. Henry and Angela kicked things off with some conversation about the work they were doing, and when Leonard returned to the office and was left alone, up popped Gerald for another chat! This was interrupted again by the arrival of The Honourable Frederick Gibb, a frock-coated official in what I took to be the Foreign Office who was visiting Leonard to check up on his strong belief that the treaty clauses in relation to the Saar coalfields had to be amended. No one else was interested in changing this aspect of the treaty, so Gibb wanted to find out if it was worth bothering the minister about. This gave Leonard the opportunity to hold forth on the economic arguments against handing these coalfields to the French as part of the reparations without at least recognising the debilitating impact such a loss would have on the German economy.

Gibb put up some of the counter-arguments to test Leonard’s facts and opinions, and the discussion soon became more wide-ranging, taking in other coalfields in Silesia as well as the need to nationalise the British coal industry – “as if that would ever happen” according to Gibb. Much of the humour was of this variety, relying on our knowledge of what was to come compared to the guesswork of the individuals in the play, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Satisfied that Leonard had good reasons for his unpopular recommendation, Gibb took his briefing memo away with him, promising to do his best.

More bloody Gerald! (Not actually bloody, you understand, just annoying.) It was bizarre to find this bit so dull and uninteresting when we’d just been given a lecture on coal production in pre-war Germany and found that relevant and meaningful, but that’s theatre for you. Gerald made a load of caustic comments about Gibb and the political manoeuvring which was going on, but they didn’t register with me.

This time the pair were interrupted by the return of Henry, who had been canoodling with a woman downstairs; ostensibly he had asked her to get them some coffee. Angela brought the tray in herself, and told Henry off for wasting the young lady’s time. Hugh also turned up; in town accompanying his officers for some meeting or other, he had found out where Leonard was working and paid him a visit. Henry left the other two alone for a bit, and it was here that Hugh’s inner turmoil began to show itself. Mabel was apparently reluctant to press on with wedding plans, and the uncertainty seemed to be affecting Hugh a lot.

After Hugh left, Leonard also went out so we got to spend some more time with a returned Gibb and Angela, who discussed the treaty process in more detail. Gibb left a letter from the minister to Leonard, basically a sop to cover the complete rejection of his ideas. When Henry returned, he realised what the letter meant, as did Leonard, and the scene was completed by another, smaller, walkthrough by Gerald, Henry, Leonard and Angela.

The set was changed again during the second interval, back to the original sitting room. Nothing had changed, but a sewing box and some gloves or stockings had been added; these were being worked on by Mabel and Constance at the start. They were preparing for a formal dinner given by Geoffrey (but apparently in Edith’s house, judging by the later scenes) which required long gloves with matching buttons – how times have changed. Geoffrey himself arrived with some sketches for the proposed war memorial; the dinner was an opportunity to raise money for that cause, and his early visit was also an opportunity to request Constance’s company for a walk. She agreed, and after showing the preliminary drawings to Edith and Mrs Chater, Geoffrey and Constance left for their stroll.

Hugh was also prowling around, hoping to speak to Mabel, and she had clearly been avoiding him for some time. Finally they had a chance to talk – Edith did her best to make sure they were left alone together – and Mabel confessed that she couldn’t marry Hugh. He accepted the news calmly, more calmly than she did, but we both felt there was an eruption due soon from that young man, possibly even suicide. Although Mabel herself was in tears, I wasn’t entirely sure what had put her off marrying Hugh. Steve reckoned it was the effect of seeing what life was like in the big city, where she’d been doing a secretarial course so that she could earn her own living. Having her horizons broadened in this way may have changed her almost as much as Hugh’s experiences had changed him, and she could no longer see herself settling down to a domestic life. I suspect this is an accurate assessment, but I felt these aspects were underwritten.

We met Mr Chater too this time – he had helped his wife bring the books and letters back for Leonard. He was a nice old cove, genial and kindly. Leonard himself turned up unannounced and unexpectedly – we only learned in the next scene that he’d quit his job, presumably disillusioned about the whole peace negotiation process.

The next scene was set after dinner, and Geoffrey finally took the plunge and made a move for Constance. She was willing to continue seeing him, but when Gerald turned up (inevitably) we learned that Geoffrey already had a mistress in London. It was hard to tell how these relationships would work out; Leonard later informed the party that he would be working in London at an institution which helped young boys, teaching them economics. With Geoffrey and his money on one side and Leonard and his ideals on the other, which way would Constance jump?

Mr Chater became upset towards the end of the scene, remembering his lost son, and had to leave hurriedly with his wife. Then Leonard felt ill and went to bed, so Geoffrey stayed for one more brandy before departing. As he prepared to leave and the coffee things were being cleared away, Gerald came on calling Leonard’s name and if I remember rightly he wasn’t in uniform this time. I wondered if this meant that Leonard had forgotten his dead friend. Then Leonard turned up in casual clothes and I realised that this was their earlier selves, saying their farewells before Gerald went off to war. I wondered briefly if this meant that Leonard had also died, but it seemed to be more of a flashback, especially as it was followed by a short scene between the womenfolk, talking about the men who were just leaving for the front. The play came to an end with the women trying to reassure each other that their men would all come back, a hollow reassurance as we were aware.

This ending in particular reminded both Steve and I of Priestley’s work. I’ve no idea if that was in Peter Gill’s mind when he wrote the play, but the slipping back in time to show us how things started was very reminiscent of Time And The Conways for example. There was more detail that I’ve omitted, mainly to do with the maid Ethel and her husband William; he also came back alive from the war, but work was hard to find in post-war Britain, so the future for them was very uncertain.

The cast were generally excellent, although I wasn’t taken with Tim Hughes as Gerald. I don’t know if it was the actor, the writing or the direction, but his character didn’t seem as convincing as the others. We are still a bit tired from our recent efforts while moving house so perhaps I’m doing the production a disservice, but I can’t help feeling that there’s a really good play in here somewhere and while this version was enjoyable enough, it wasn’t as rich an experience as it could have been.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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