The TheatreguideLondon Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Spring 2014
In this centenary year Peter Gill adds to the First World War literature an extensively researched and thoroughly presented analysis of the errors made in the drafting of the postwar peace treaty, the mis-thinking that went into them and the long-term and generally disastrous repercussions of them.
What he hasn't written is a play.
Gill creates just enough of a fictional construct to allow for a string of debates – or, rather, of people making long speeches at each other – about what should or shouldn't go into the treaty and what will result, but the dramatic situation rarely rings true and the characters rarely rise above mouthpieces for the author.
The result is more an essay or lecture than a piece of drama. It can be appreciated on that level, because much of what Gill says through the mouths of his characters is interesting and informative. But there is too little to relate to in dramatic terms.
Gill imagines a young economist assigned to the British contingent at Versailles, part of the staff who brief their superiors on such things as German coal output and draft treaty texts. Act One finds him in his mother's comfortable country home, his job inspiring teatime conversations about how vindictive and punitive the victors should be to Germany, with predictable contributions from a rich Tory neighbour and a young New Woman.
In Act Two he's in France, warning his superiors of the danger he sees in one specific treaty item – the disposition of Germany's Saar coalfields – and being overruled, and Act Three brings him back home, full of misgivings and warnings of what is to come.
Everywhere he turns throughout the three-hour play, there is somebody willing to listen to him express himself at length and to argue back at equal length.
And when there's nobody there – indeed, whenever there's nobody there, so that you begin to dread his being left alone onstage, knowing who's going to enter – he debates with the ghost of his soldier-lover, who is obligingly less interested in their personal story than in taking the opposite side on whatever issue the hero is thinking of at that moment and allowing him to talk about it.
Gill's ideas are provocative and sometimes convincing – he echoes the case made by many historians that the impulse to over-punish Germany was shortsighted and ironically led, more-or-less directly, to the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, the Cold War, factional civil wars in the Balkans, the rise of transnational Islam and just about everything else that's gone wrong in the past 100 years.
And he argues that the underlying error was that made by all victors in all wars, the impulse to protect and sustain the ruling classes' status quo.
But that's not a play, and Gill's attempts to dress it up in a drama are particularly weak.
What might be called plot questions, like whether the hero's sister should marry her soldier boyfriend, or whether some letters between the hero and his dead lover will out him, or whether the New Woman and the Tory should date, or whether mother will run out of tea and cake, all seem half-heartedly pasted on and never really engage either playwright or audience.
Without real characters to play, the major accomplishment of the hard-working cast is to demonstrate their technical skill by reciting page after page of textbook prose and frequently making it sound like something a real person might actually say.
As directed by the playwright, Gwilym Lee does make us feel the young man's commitment and frustration, but everyone else, including woefully underused stalwarts like Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn and Simon Williams, can be credited only with saying their pieces clearly, which is all the playwright-director asked of them.
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