Over time, history solidifies. Any schoolkid historian will tell you that the Versailles Treaty so crippled Germany that the Nazis were able to ride the resentment into the Reichstag, then the Rhineland. Well, nobody knew that in 1919.
What Peter Gill’s new play does brilliantly is restore history’s human edge, the uncertainty with which events unfold. The irony is that his characters so clearly represent political and social standpoints that human drama drops out of his play.
Versailles centres on Leonard (Gwilym Lee), a young, middle-class diplomat heading to Paris as part of the British delegation. He’s convinced that reparations, though necessary, need tempering; in particular, that stripping Germany of its Saar Basin coalmines would, in time, topple its economy. Lo, of course, it came to pass and Leonard’s foresight is so impeccable that Gill often risks contrivance.
Yet even Leonard, so fixated on the future, can’t shake off the past. In solitary moments he is visited by his dead lover, Gerald (Tom Hughes). Throughout, Gill shows how naturally a population united in personal grief demands crushing retribution, to “squeeze the German lemon till the pip squeaks”, as one politician put it.
Over its three acts, Versailles reminds us of much else: that peace was still not guaranteed; that diplomats had concerns beyond work – mostly flirtatious; and that the dominant nations – empires, really – were all out for self-interest above global stability. Gill entwines that with class, strongly suggesting Versailles as a missed opportunity, more protectionist than progressive.
All of which is utterly fascinating without being great drama. Wanting to know where an argument will go is not the same as wanting to know what will happen next. It’s hard to care for ciphers, and Versailles is always absorbing but rarely involving.
There are exceptions, notably Hugh Skidmore, a front-line survivor, who drifts from empty relief to isolated introspection, delicately played by Josh O’Connor. It’s a neat pairing: for Hugh the past hangs heavy while Leonard is weighed down by the future.
Gill’s own production is crisp and clear to the point of transparency, though restless blocking flags up the talk-heavy text. Lee is mightily impressive – the soft centre that still manages to bind the play – and there’s strong support from Helen Bradbury as an easy-going idealist, Adrian Lukis as a self-regarding Tory and Barbara Flynn as a mother mourning the deaths of both her son and the Empire.