“Democracy…such an un-English word”
Expectations for Peter Gill’s Versailles were quite low due to a number of factors – a five star review from Billington; my reaction to Making Noise Quickly, Gill’s last directorial intervention at the Donmar; the announcement of a running time of 3 hours; and decidedly mixed chatter from friends who had already seen it. And as it often the way with these things, I ended up rather enjoying it. It certainly helped that I was prepared for the extreme steadiness of its pacing and the dip of the second act of this self-directed play.
Set in the aftermath of the First World War, Gill examines and contrasts the impact of the peace process of Versailles on a Europe ravaged by conflict and also on a slice of middle-class English society, notably Kentish families the Rawlinsons and the Chaters. Leonard Rawlinson is a young civil servant involved in the negotiations for the treaty but he is haunted by both his doubts of whether a lasting peace can be achieved through these means and the ghost of his fallen soldier lover Gerald, who just happened to be the son of the neighbouring Chaters.
The play is at its considerable best when it is dealing with the weighty repressed emotion at its heart, not just in the secretly gay lovers but also in the ramifications of the social upheaval of wartime, leaving so many unsure of their place in a society they barely recognise. There’s also a lot of dry debate, dense amounts of detail packed in that stultifies large swathes of the first two parts where one imagines external directorial intervention might have been beneficial. The sharp humour that frequently comes through also jars a little, playing a little too closely to contemporary attitudes.
But the exceptional performance level makes it a hot ticket regardless. Francesca Annis and Barbara Flynn are both excellent as the mothers, Annis particularly affecting here; Gwilym Lee’s Leonard is a perfect combination of passionate concern and restrained involvement, the scenes with Tom Hughes’ Gerald building to something near devastating; and there’s good work from Helen Bradbury and Tamla Kari as the younger women in their lives, Adrian Lukis as a neighbour and Christopher Godwin as Gerald’s distraught father.
So a curious mixture all in all to add to the many pieces of theatre paying tribute in this, the centenary of the start of the First World War. Gill’s writing swerves between uneven patches and piercing acuity and one longs to know what choices another director would have made with the text, but there is no doubting the glorious performances he encourages from his cast.