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.

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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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror