The uncertainty of war fought in the trenches gives way to the fresh uncertainties of life resuming again after the armistice in Peter Gill’s new play, centred upon the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Balanced across three acts, the play opens and closes in a drawing room in Kent where a middle-class coterie discuss when and how peace will be restored in both the British Empire and their own personal lives. In the middle of this, the action shifts to Paris where Leonard, a young civil servant is advising on the negotiations of the Treaty and becoming increasingly concerned by the consequences of harsh war reparations to Germany.
Versailles’ strength is this original positioning at a crossing-point, where pre-war and post-war sentiments, the present and the absent, internal and external pressures collide and are suspended in a limbo that Gill’s direction moves forward with increasing urgency.
Richard Hudson’s handsome design perfectly evokes a last grasp at order in a world on the cusp of massive social, political and moral change. Hanging chandeliers, high cornices and draped maps give a sense of the enormity of space in which the characters must make their choices, yet becomes increasingly claustrophobic throughout. And we really feel every character’s personal struggle with flawless performances from all the cast. A growing generation divide is displayed well by Tamla Kari’s challenge of decorum in Leonard’s sister, Mabel. Barbara Flynn’s exceptional rendering of Marjorie Chater, an outspoken harbinger of tradition, stoically dealing with the loss of her son, Gerald, provides moments of much-needed humour. Gwilym Lee gives a superbly controlled performance as Leonard, moving from impassioned idealism to chillingly prescient scepticism, all the while haunted by his lover, Gerald Chater, who never returned from the front line.
As Gerald reminds us, ‘the war is being dispatched now by words’ and in addressing Germany’s treatment in Paris with such accurate and insistent detail, Versailles could easily have lapsed into a dogmatic history lecture. What emerges, however, is a nuanced and painful study of loss and repair where voices unheard and unspoken resonate just as powerfully as any fiery rhetoric. Gerald’s ghost seamlessly flows in and out of the action and Tom Hughes’ graceful movements and rhythmic delivery lend a poetic feel to his presence, aided by Paul Pyant’s ethereal lighting and sparse moments of music, as the Floradora sextet, heard from a distance, closes the second act.
This is a play of interruptions at crucial moments, of instability and time out of joint. It is a shame, therefore, that the only fault in this otherwise flawless production is its length. Even with its touch of light humour, its patterning of politic and private, at three hours running time, the production cannot escape from a sense of dilution rather than addition at certain moments. Some editing, particularly of the detailed discussions of the Saar Basin would have crystallised the emotion behind the atrocities of war. Josh O’Connor’s martyr-like concern for a shell-shocked compatriate as Hugh, and Christopher Godwin’s momentary surrender to grief as Marjorie’s husband, resonate far more than Leonard’s dissemination of statistics from the front line.
‘Catastrophe is difficult to process and history begins where we want’, Leonard claims at the close of the play. Gill’s writing powerfully demonstrates the difficulty of how nations and, more importantly, individuals remember, articulate and absorb such catastrophe, eschewing moralising for a production that never finds a settled conclusion and is genuinely moving throughout.