It is apposite that this new version of Les Main Sales opens in the week in which the peace in Northern Ireland comes a step closer. For The Novice is a play about political compromise, about how to gain power and whether idealistic principles be shed on the way.
Jean-Paul Sartre is nowhere near as popular today as he was in the 50s and 60s when every idealistic youth would claim that he or she was an existentialist. But as events in Ireland show, some of the ideas discussed in the play have a resonance in other times. In many respects, the piece is dated - the fight beyond communism and capitalism is just about over, and the word 'collaboration' would have had uncomfortable implications in France in 1948.
The play tells how Hugo, a young, idealistic Communist is asked by the party to assassinate Hoederer, a senior member who is about to reach a political accommodation with the enemy - most of the play consists of Hugo trying to come to terms with what Auden called the 'necessary murder'. The French will have seen all of this before. The contrast between the earthy, pragmatic and hedonistic Hoederer and the ascetic and ideologically pure Hugo mirrors that of the Danton and Robespierre relationship - with pretty much the same result.
But despite Richard Eyre's pacy production, and his own robust and idiomatic translation, this play has not aged well. Sartre was first and foremost a philosopher, and his observations on the roles that people play in their lives (the theatre is one of his favourite metaphors). Consequently, much of the play is taken up with some rather long-winded and repetitive discourse that probably stimulated the philosophes of the Left Bank but that leaves the rest of us cold.
However, Kenneth Cranham breathes life into Hoederer and Jamie Glover is fine as the hesitating Hugo. Though Natasha Little, as Hugo's wife, doesn't have much to do but look decorative (Sartre has, shall we say, old-fashioned views on women), she does it very well - and deserves a better part than this. Frank Harper and Alex Palmer make their mark as a pair of heavies who look like they have just escaped from the latest Brit gangster movie.
This is that terrible thing to British audiences, a play of ideas. Not only that - despite the highly topical connotations, it cannot shake off its post-war origins. The hard-working cast make this evening far, far better than it should be.