Peter Gill has achieved the seemingly impossible with this new play at the Donmar. He has written a play about the first world war which fails to connect with the audience's emotions at all.
I don't like putting the boot into new writing, least of all when I see it in one of my favourite London theatres. But there is really no point in trying to sugar my verdict: this production proves definitively that playwrights should never be allowed to direct their own plays.
In most theatres the director would have read the script, seen its obvious flaws, and asked the writer to do some rewriting. That can't happen when the director and the writer are the same person. I have nothing against Gill, a hugely respected figure in British theatre, and enjoyed his play The York Realist very much in 2002.
But it's a long while since I saw a play that was so full of talk and so lacking in action. There are long, windy speeches, polite conversations over tea, great slabs of undigested historical research and lots of clunky exposition. Characters come on and off stage for no particular reason other than that the writer feels it's time for them to appear or disappear. The one thing that is wholly lacking is drama.
Gill looks at the Versailles conference and the post-war peace settlement through the narrow prism of a Home Counties middle-class family. Leonard Rawlinson is a bright young civil servant, literate in economics, who is sent as a junior delegate to join the British delegation at the conference. In the first act, he's with his family at their home in a village in west Kent. In the second act, he's in an office in Paris with other British officials, and in the final act he's back home, having resigned in disillusion.
The use of a minor participant to illuminate great historical events is a tried and tested technique, but it just doesn't work here. Leonard fails in his attempt to rewrite the punitive reparations clauses of the Versailles treaty, correctly foreseeing that one day Germany will want its revenge for having its economy destroyed. But we get not even a glimpse of the principal players in the drama, who remain offstage. All we see is a bunch of civil servants passing brown foolscap files to each other. Contrast this with the approach to history of a much more keen-witted historical dramatist, Howard Brenton. In Drawing the Line, Brenton manages to bring to life the equally complex story of the partition of India by involving a mixture of principal and secondary characters, some real and some imaginary. His handling of the subject may be a bit sketchy in its historical depth, but he's always in command of his material and imagining the strongest possible dramatic angle.
In Versailles we don't see the dramatic moment when Leonard decides to quit his job, which falls conveniently between acts two and three. WIthout it, there is really no story, and very little link between the characters back home in Kent and what is happening at the conference. Leonard is haunted by the ghost of his friend and lover Gerald Chater, who appears on stage several times as a ghost from the past. This dramatic device is clunky and fits uneasily into a realist play. The conversations between Gerald and Leonard are full of empty words but devoid of any dramatic action.
Apart from the rather thin story of Leonard and his anguished feelings, both about Gerald and about Germany's coal production, the rest of the story is mostly padding. Many of the characters seem to serve no real dramatic function, serving as little more than decorative furniture. This is particularly true of Leonard's sister Mabel and her friend Constance.
I don't blame any of the actors, who do their very best with the roles they are given. Gill's direction of the play is much better than his writing, but that is scant consolation after three hours of inaction.