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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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