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After the Armistice, in spring 1919 the Treaty of Versailles drew lines on the map and enforced reparations.  Its decisions cast long shadows even today,  and its peace lasted only twenty years,.  Peter Gill’s ambitious, chewy,  eloquent play is built around that conference. But with fascinating obliquity it observes it in the first and third acts from an affluent drawing-room in Kent,  and between them from a civil service anteroom in Paris.  It often feels more like a wordy novel – perhaps by E.M.Forster – yet its very seriousness finally captures the heart.  Gill shows us people adrift in a newly incomprehensible world:  stunned by grief or confused by change, needing to  understand that as the hero Leonard says despairingly  “The war  was greater than our capacity to deal with the results.”

The Kentish drawing-room is home to Edith  (Francesca Annis) her daughter Mabel (Tamla Kari)  and son Leonard (Gwilym Lee) , a young civil servant off to help at Versailles.  They have houseguests:  soldier Hugh,  home on leave and loosely affianced to Mabel, and Constance (Helen Bradbury)  who works in a leftish bookshop and knew Leonard at University.  He is an authority on the Saar Valley coalmines,  which belong to Germany but which Versailles may cede to France.  His anxiety about impoverishing Germany too greatly is met with contempt by Mrs Chater (a sharp performance by Barbara Flynn) a neighbour who is mourning both her soldier son and the new world of Jews and foreigners and class fluidity (“My niece is married to an Irishman, but that’s as far as it goes”.)

Another neighbour contemptuous of  Leonard’s qualms is Geoffrey,  a wonderfully sinister creation whose two sides are conveyed perfectly by Adrian Lukis. There’s the kindly prosperous village neighbour  “I’m an old country Tory – will it work, and what’s best for me?”  he says joshingly,  but as the evening goes on his self-satisfied pragmatism reveals a heart of granite:  democracy is a figleaf,  all we need is  “a robust market and a wise élite”.    Tellingly, he likes the opera because its emotion and idealism are “confined by art and open to interpretation” –  ouch!  He is organizing a war memorial but cares little that the tormented Hugh can’t even look at the drawings;  he has a mistress in London but an eye for Constance.

Gill cannot resist sly moments of prediction:  Geoffrey observes that  “the greengrocer class” has no class loyalties and hence makes harsh decisions (work that  out!).   Simon Williams, perfect as the senior diplomat at Versailles, harrumphs about the new need for  “clever middle class boys, neurotic though they may be”   who read novels, don’t hunt, and make preposterous suggestions like nationalizing coal –  “As if that would ever happen!”.  But the play’s heart is Leonard, struggling with  the moral ambiguity of all parties in war  and the danger of crippling Germany  (he was right:  Hitler owed much to its years of panic and poverty).  He deplores “the hurried nation-making, partitioning up Africa as if we owned it” , looks towards the East and fears a future “Mohammedan Cromwell” will exploit the resentments of arrogant border-making.    His emotional life is torment too:  the dead Chater son was his friend and lover, who in a less successful device appears as a recurrent ghost, arguing and reproaching.

Ideas are sometimes piled too high, but when Gill (who also directs) remembers that this is theatre he scores moments of shaking emotion:  The Chaters, for instance, are each ambushed out of their civilized chattiness into sudden sobs for their dead son.  As in life, it’s moments kindness that do it:  Mrs Chater breaks suddenly at the gift of a piece of cake, and in the last act her husband (a brief but powerful Christopher Godwin) defies the general disapproval of Leonard’s resigning to work in the East End.  The old man walks up and shakes his hand saying “You are a pilgrim!”,  and weeps.

In that moment,  the pity and the puzzle of war come very close.

Box Office 0844 871 7624  to 5 April        Supported by: Barclays  / American Airlines

rating:  four     4 Meece Rating
A series of talks accompanies VERSAILLES to mark the centenary of WW1: details and booking:  donmarwarehouse.com


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