Sunday 6 April 2014

Versailles at the Donmar, or, This Lecture will be in Three Acts

In case you haven't noticed, it's the anniversary of the start of the First World War this year. This, I assume was the starting point for the commissioning of this new play by Peter Gill, even though it deals with the peace rather than the war. It is of course also possible that Peter Gill had already decided he wanted to write a big play on the First World War and the Versailles Peace. Unfortunately, wherever responsibility is laid the fact remains that in creating this new work crucial elements needed for a good play have been sadly omitted. The result apart from a couple of good scenes in Act Three and fleeting moments elsewhere is dull.

Gill's cardinal sin is that of sinking his various characters under the weight of the many historical points he wants to make. In consequence, almost none of them (even those who don't spend most of the play delivering long, tiresome monologues which everybody else inexplicably listens to with insufficient interruption) come across as real, convincingly human figures but as mouthpieces for authorial opinions. This might not be so bad if Gill actually succeeded in telling us anything new, or showing anything from a new angle by this method, but he does not.

The pity of all this is that the couple of all too brief scenes in Act Three where character does come to the fore demonstrate that Gill is perfectly capable of doing something interesting when he wants to. Unfortunately, he's so busy lecturing that he leaves the two pairings in these scenes in an infuriatingly ambigious state. Why exactly has Mabel broken off her engagement to Hugh? Will Constance discover that Geoffrey has a mistress, and with what effects? Unlike all the tedious pontificating about the failings of the peace these are things I cannot find out from other sources and about which I would have liked to know far more.

The other point worthy of mention is the ghost of Leonard's (Gwilym Lee) almost maybe but not quite boyfriend Gerald (Tom Hughes). The idea of Leonard being haunted by what might have been, and his own suppressed nature's contribution to that loss, is not in itself a bad one. But the trouble is that, as it unsurprisingly turns out, this is not really what Gill wants the ghost on stage for. Sadly, the ghost apart from a couple of brief moments where his presence enables some exploration of the pair's relationship, is mostly there to deliver yet more tedious monologues. If Gerald actually went on and on in this way while alive, which given what else we hear about him strikes me as frankly unlikely, I can't really think why Leonard got on with him at all – it must have interfered terribly with Leonard's desire to deliver monologues.

I can't fault any of the large company in this play who all do their very best to bring life to these thinly drawn characters. Most of them have moments suggestive of interesting character but they are too often mouthpieces rather than individuals for this to have the impact that it should. There's also some good individual work being done by those reduced to silence or near silence by the monologues – Helen Bradbury's Constance deserves particular mention here. But for too much of the time this talented ensemble are left trapped by the material.

Good modern history plays are possible. The best in recent times was Howard Brenton's 55 Days. Gill's exploration of Versailles has flashes of promise, but there are many excellent written histories which explore many of the points he is occupied with far more effectively. Theatre needs to approach these matters in other ways to be successful. A disappointing evening.

Housekeeping Note: This is a play that clocks in at three hours and thus ends just after 10.30. A start time of 7pm rather than 7.30pm would surely have been sensible out of consideration for those in the audience with any distance to travel.

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