Not a play about the French monarchy, Versailles is an ambitious play from Peter Gill that dramatizes the controversial peace treaty that was signed in the French palace at the end of WWI.
In this 100 year anniversary of the Great War, it's perfect timing for theatre to take the opportunity to explore some of the issues around this world-changing event. And this production has certainly taken on a fascinating part of the story, where the want for revenge against Germany is mangled with the need to ensure that it is not punished so viciously as to destroy any chance of a lasting peace.
The framework to explore this is in the story of Leonard (Gwilym Lee), an educated middle-class gay man whose brilliance has led to his employment in the British government's negotiation team to be sent to Paris. Yet though Leonard's politics lead him to favour a sympathetic peace treaty, he is mourning the loss of his lover Gerald (Tom Hughes), who was killed in the trenches.
With any dramatization of real events, there's always the risk that facts may be massaged or even made up to suit the story, but not here. Versailles is certainly factually accurate, and there are most certainly a lot of facts.
Whether it's details on the prewar production of coal in the Saarland, the length of time till the agreed plebiscites in the region and in Poland, the Balfour declaration, the impact of returning soldiers on German politics, the collapse of Turkey, the American insistence on the set-up of the League of Nations, the politics of self-determinism, the self-interest of the British Empire, the carve-up of Africa.... Pretty much every fact you would need to know to pass a GCSE History paper question is here. Fascinating but it's this forensic analysis of the issues which hampers the emergence of an engaging storyline.
Versailles is written and directed by the incredibly talented Peter Gill and so I feel somewhat awkward in criticising his work - who am I to criticise someone with as much experience as him? But the plot of a gay man negotiating the peace whilst haunted - literally - by his dead lover is clunky.
And there is so little drama or conflict in this piece - Leonard is gay but everyone seems to know and no one seems upset or angry (which is a surprise, given the era), Leonard has left-wing principles but his Tory-leaning family and friends are largely sympathetic, and nor is there much tension in the scenes between Leonard and the ghost of his dead lover.
There is, though, much to admire in this production. The acting from a stellar cast (including Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn, Adrian Lukis and Simon Williams) is superb throughout. A lot of the characters are quite clichéd - the principled educated middle-class man, the traumatised soldier returning from the trenches, the dyed-in-the-wool Tory villager, the young wilful modern woman - but each actor has shown great craft in developing their character, making them more than their stereotype.
There is the potential of a terrific production in Versailles but it never allows itself to set aside the details for the sake of the story. You get the impression that with a few more drafts, that balance between educating and entertaining would have been found.
As it is, the heavy exposition makes it too easy to zone out during the long three hour running time. And the time it robs away from character development means that, at the show's conclusion, I just wasn't moved by the tragedy of the subject, which was a shame.
Donmar Warehouse, London
To April 5, 2014