Versailles, theatre review: 'Makes for a long evening but rewards persistence'

Donmar Warehouse, London

As we mark the centenary of the start of the First World War, there has been a profusion of books and articles focusing on its much-disputed causes.

But it's the long-term effects of the decisions made in the immediate aftermath that preoccupy Peter Gill in his ambitious and thoughtful new play, premiered now in the author's own superbly cast production at the Donmar. 

The main character is Leonard Rawlinson, a bright young civil servant who is sent to Paris as part of the British delegation working on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Though much lower down the food chain, this figure seems to have been partly modelled on John Maynard Keynes in his mounting disillusion and eventual resignation. Leonard's analysis of the situation – that a vengeful pauperising of Germany (his own expertise is coal, with Germany standing to lose a third of its output) will sow the seeds of future horror – is straight out of Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919).  Leonard is also a covert homosexual, haunted by the ghost of his secret lover (played with just the right faintly louche, taunting suggestiveness by Tom Hughes) who died at the Front and keeps reappearing in uniform to fuel the protagonist's bitterness at the way the post-war world is reverting to past mistakes and the old social order. 

Gwilym Lee strikingly conveys Leonard's exasperated idealism and private melancholy. But even by the standards appropriate to righteous young men, his speeches sound like unnaturally prolix lectures and, in an effort to ram home how the misjudgements of Versailles continue to shape the world we live in, Gill has made the characters prodigal with forecasts – “it can only be time before a  Mohammedan Cromwell will come...”, or “as we used Christianity to sweeten our foreign adventures, [the United States] will have to use democracy and self-determination as a cover for theirs” etc etc – that come over as a bit too conveniently wise-before-the-event. 

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.

To 5 April; 0844 871 7624