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