Versailles‘Versailles’ by Peter Gill at Donmar Warehouse

5th April 2014

A guest review by Derek Linney

Write a 5,000 word essay on ‘The Versailles Treaty as an illustration of the choices facing the British after the Great War’. Your answer should pay particular attention to the disposition of the Saar coalfields and whether ceding them to France, as reparation or punishment of Germany, was political expediency at the cost of longer term stability in post-war Europe. If you can link this theme to the social changes, or lack thereof, occurring in upper-middle class English households and to women’s suffrage, bohemianism, shell-shock, capitalism and Bolshevism, Empire and also the relationship between the civil service and politicians then additional marks may be awarded.  Introducing the subject of homosexuality  into your answer may also improve your grade.

This, well the first part anyway, could be one of the essays in the final year of my History degree. But rather it is the starting point for Peter Gill’s three-hour long play that has just finished its run at the Donmar Warehouse. I was first attracted to the play by its subject matter related to the Versailles Treaty but it turned out to be an enjoyable theatrical experience. Gill succeeds in treating his audience as intelligent and knowledgeable rather than spoon-feeding us the historical background and without the need to sign-post the points he is making. The majority of theatre critics liked the play although some commentators have been less generous, obviously finding three hours of largely intellectual discussion too much for them.

The story revolves around Leonard Rawlinson (Gwilym Lee), an economist co-opted into the British Delegation formulating the Treaty of Versailles,  and his family and friends. In particular it uses the device of discussions between him and the ghost of his friend and lover, Gerald Chater (Tom Hughes) who was killed in the war, to explore his emotions and dilemmas. My heart sank when I read in a review of the presence of a ghost figure as this can so easily (Shakespeare excepted) destroy the realism that a play tries to project. But in Gill’s case it succeeds brilliantly and fits naturally into the flow of the play.

Often, even in otherwise excellent plays, there are some weaknesses in the casting. With this production, however, all the characters including the more minor ones were well cast. Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn portray the matriarchs with conviction and the whole cast succeed in avoiding the theatricality than can too often accompany period dramas. Only two sets are used – the drawing room of the family country house and an office in, presumably, the British embassy in Paris – and there is outstanding attention to detail which results in a genuine sense of place and time while never distracting from the play itself.

At times the play does, maybe, try to be too smart – alluding to current day issues such as the problems of the Middle East and Islamic fundamentalism – but in general it does maintain a credible dialogue for characters living in 1919. There are also many enjoyable asides: my favourites being Gerald’s observation that he wasn’t rich enough to be able to adopt a Bohemian lifestyle and Mrs Chater’s view that if women were allowed into power they would be every bit as ruthless as men in their political actions (Mrs Thatcher anyone?).

Despite its length the play never dragged and we found it entertaining and stimulating. It deserves a run in a larger theatre but it may be that it only found its place in the repertoire because of the current coverage of all things to do with the First World War. A revival in 2019 – the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles – would be appropriate.