Review Roundup: Donmar Warehouse's VERSAILLES
The Donmar Warehouse is currently presenting Peter Gill's VERSAILLES. In the drawing room of the Rawlinson's late Victorian villa in Kent, life as it was lived before the war is quietly resuming its place. The family's son, Leonard Rawlinson, is among the British delegation sent to Versailles to draw up the treaty that will come to define Europe, the Middle East and the rest of the world. With the ghost of a fallen loved one still haunting him, Leonard perceives that the choices made in Paris will shape the fate of millions for centuries to come.
At the start of the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, this major new play draws startling connections between this pivotal moment at the end of WWI and the world we live in today, reminding us that the past is not a foreign country.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Charles Spencer, Telegraph: For a dramatist of Gill's experience the writing is, at times, surprisingly inept. The most moving moment in the play comes from a bereaved father, beautifully played by Christopher Godwin, who has lost his son in the war. But the character is wheeled on at the end almost as an afterthought. And several other characters are so sketchily written that they barely exist.
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard: The play's range and polemical ambition are admirable - in its hefty seriousness it calls to mind the work of George Bernard Shaw, and there are some wickedly pointed lines. But only in the final third does it seem intimately human, and by then we've had to endure a lot of turgid debate.
Michael Billington, Guardian: Gill's play runs for three hours, and I loved every minute of it. Set over six months in 1919, the play starts in the Kent household of the Rawlinson family, whose son, Leonard, is shortly to leave for Paris as part of the British delegation to the Peace Conference. In the middle act, set in Paris, we see Leonard vainly arguing against French appropriation of Germany's coal-producing Saar Basin, and in the final act a disillusioned Leonard returns home and shocks family and friends with his declaration that the conflict in the heart of Europe remains unresolved.
MIchael Coveney, Whatsonstage: The production is handsomely designed by Richard Hudson and gorgeously lit by Paul Pyant so that the characters have a sort of secular radiance about them, fixed as vividly in the past as Gerald's ghost is challengingly alive in the present. In the centenary year of the Great War I suspect we've just been handed a superb new play that is anything but emptily commemorative.
Paul Taylor, Independent: Versailles contends that the educated middle-classes wasted a historic opportunity to change the ground-rules through a cowardly, self-interested collusion with the powers-that-be. "The task ahead lies in finding an elite whose object is make itself redundant," declares the spectral lover. The outer acts of this three hour piece are set in the Rawlinsons' arts and crafts Kent villa, presided over by Francesca Annis's bossy matriarch. Though Leonard tends to turn any gathering into a geopolitical seminar, the play wittily and movingly evokes a society struggling to adjust to the problems of peace. Barbara Flynn is horribly funny and affecting as a bereaved mother whose grief gives her licence to offload some dogmatically illiberal pronouncements. Josh O'Connor is deeply touching as Hugh, a charming chinless wonder who, after his experiences at the Front and being messed around by the Rawlinson daughter, withdraws into sad, unassuming reticence ("I find it necessary to be with someone who has heard a shell explode"). Written in the proud tradition of Shaw and Granville-Barker, Versailles is too overt in its designs on us and makes for a long evening but it rewards persistence.
Photo Credit: Johan Persson