Winter palace: Versailles, location of the 1919 treaty, in the snow in 2013. (Photo: Getty)
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Keeping the peace: Versailles at the Donmar Warehouse

Peter Gill’s epic, often brilliant but finally unsatisfactory three-hour play about the 1919 peace conference.

Versailles
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

Every hack has been there. You toil for hours on a crucial paragraph (of a theatre review, say), shoehorning the ideas in, lacing the sentences with subclauses, polishing the prose till you can see your face in the damn thing. Then you read through the piece and it’s too long and the one paragraph you don’t need is the one that took you so long.

Something like this afflicts Peter Gill’s Versailles, his epic, often brilliant, frequently touching but finally unsatisfactory three-hour play about the 1919 peace conference (and specifically Middle England’s response to the Great War). Unfortunately, in the play’s case, the troublesome and otiose second act stays in.

Not that it is a particularly bad act – but it breaks faith with the play’s conceit, which is to witness the reparations debate from the vantage of an upper-middle-class drawing room in Tonbridge. We find the widowed matriarch Edith – Francesca Annis pulls off the feat of making bourgeois ennui look like a spiritual failing – at her desk playing patience. “This is not going to come out,” she says, prefiguring the outcome of the conference that her son, Leonard (Gwilym Lee), is about to attend as a civil servant.

Leonard, who spends some time seeking the atlas used in his childhood home, is in this first act a liberal pragmatist aware that enlightened self-interest requires a less punitive approach to Germany. Against him in this carpeted cockpit are Edith’s friends Marjorie Chater and Geoffrey Ainsworth. Marjorie, played in weeds by the redoubtable Barbara Flynn, has lost a son and seeks nothing less than total revenge and a restitution of the old world order.

By today’s standards she is a nasty piece of work who worries about keeping the “stock pure”. Her point of view is ameliorated by the tweedy Geoffrey, played with twinkly insouciance by Adrian Lukis: “I think we can be relaxed on the matter of race, you know.” He is the other type of pragmatist: a Tory one. His politics is guided by the lodestars “Will it work?” and “What’s in it for me?”.

Then comes Act II, set in the Hotel Astoria in Paris where Leonard and Henry, another junior delegate to Versailles, are struggling over the ownership of coal production in the Saar Basin. (Views anyone?) How they – and we – struggle! It is an honourable attempt to dramatise in microcosm the complexities of the peace deal but it desperately lacks emotional oomph. Henry is barely dramatised. Their colleague/matron Angela is a cut-out Miss Moneypenny.

Although Lee’s worthy Leonard comes closer to life in this act, the audience stays for Simon Williams’s croaky turn as the senior diplomat Frederick Gibb who describes himself anachronistically as the “silky interface” between Leonard and “our masters”. His speeches are a little crude but they are true to the play’s main theme: the middle classes at a crossroads. Gibb’s grandfather hated the middle classes, he says, yet now the government relies on them, “over-sensitive and neurotic as they mostly seem to be”. We are surely not salivating for the apparitions of Gerald (Tom Hughes), Leonard’s dead would-be soldier lover – that most convenient mouthpiece for a gay, left-wing playwright: a gay, left-wing ghost. Along with Act II, the ghostly Gerald probably needed to go.

However, Act III back in Tonbridge is strong, both emotionally and thematically. Tamla Kari struggles as Edith’s daughter, Mabel, because it is an underwritten role but we sense the sacrifice she is making in calling off her engagement to the nice but dim officer Hugh, wonderfully played by Josh O’Connor. For Mabel, given the man shortage, there may be a lifetime with no husband. Equally Hugh faces alone a changing world for which he is ill-equipped.

The play ends in subdued optimism. Out of the failures of Europe’s ruling class and Victorian masculinity emerge two new species: the feminist intellectual, as portrayed by Helen Bradbury’s articulate Constance, and the Fabian socialist, personified in the reinvigorated Leonard, who announces that he will become an economics lecturer in Canning Town and, presumably, John Maynard Keynes’s alter ego. Movingly, he wins the blessing of Gerald’s bereaved father, Arthur Chater, played with heartbreaking dignity by Christopher Goodwin. Versailles may not quite “come out” but its ambition and sensitivity, the company’s acting and Gill’s direction are all admirable.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer at the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge