Review: Versailles, by Peter Gill at the Donmar Warehouse

Versailles Donmar Peter GillMid performance of Peter Gill’s new play Versailles, I started thinking of the text and how it must look on the page. It was in one of the numerous, lengthy, cavernous monologues when the actor was pushing forward reams of sentences and words, in the presence of other people (fellow actors and the audience) who were trying to concentrate on their meaning.

This might give the impression of an avant guard play but Versailles is as old fashioned as it gets. The setting is the end of WWI,  in the drawing room of an upper class family that is not as well off as it used to be. Some men have come back from the war, some never will. The treaty of Versailles is being negotiated. From there we move to the back rooms of power and then back to the drawing room. Relationships are sketched but the play hardly ever focuses on them. Instead we get essay after essay, and history lesson after history lesson. Lovers’ last encounters are weighted down by lectures on class, money, self-determination, reparation.  It’s like being cornered by an earnest, not entirely sober, fervent activist at a party: you agree with most of what he/she says and some of it is a bit witty but mostly your eyes glaze over.

Occasionally interesting things happen: a look, a touch, a thought. But the play quickly moves away from them, revisiting indulgent ideas. At one point someone says: “There is no flesh. Implications, other than your own, are left out”. It’s hard not to agree with that.

In this context the actors bring the characters to life with admirable depth and warmth. Gwilym Lee, who has a young Benedict Cumberbatch look about him, combines diffidence, determination and a subtly touching quality. Tom Hughes, in the past a detached cold presence, has a feverish aura, both unsettling and easy to engage with. Barbara Flynn, without being sad or morbid, manages to make every crease of her mouth a celebration of grief. Helen Bradbury’s performance is a striking combination of beauty, pragmatism and idealism. Josh O’Connor possesses generosity of spirit as if it is a superpower, ordinary and extraordinary in equal measures.

Set and costumes are beautifully detailed while at the same time carrying the heavy musk of death. In this setting, I would be happy to watch the actors going about everyday tasks: cleaning the table, lighting a cigarette. Instead, we  get heavyhanded speeches.

I felt let down by the wealth of material and talent shortchanged. There is a better, simpler play in that text, where relationships are allowed to breathe and ideas demand flesh and blood.

The Hamlet Challenge: The play has echoes of Hamlet, with ghosts spurring the living into action. At some point, fiction is discussed as propaganda of the middle classes: someone contemplates how aristocrats – with their ” matter of fact, stoic attitude” towards hardship – are “the least like Hamlet”.  It could have been funny. It should have been funny. But somehow the irony falls flat among the noise of heavy ideas.

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