Mixed bag for Peter Gill's Donmar Versailles
The new play, set after the conclusion of the First World War, stars Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn and Gwilym Lee and opened at the Donmar Warehouse last night (27 February 2014)
Peter Gill's beautifully written and intriguing new play… Gill's writing is both elliptical and springy, drawing neat parallels and comic energy between social alliances in Paris, where Selina Griffiths and Edward Killingback play busy background operators in the process of the treaty, and the healing of the social fabric in Kent, with plans for a stone memorial in the village. The production is handsomely designed by Richard Hudson and gorgeously lit by Paul Pyant so that the characters have a sort of secular radiance about them, fixed as vividly in the past as Gerald's ghost is challengingly alive in the present. In the centenary year of the Great War I suspect we've just been handed a superb new play that is anything but emptily commemorative.
…Peter Gill has come up with an intermittently touching but excessively garrulous play… For a dramatist of Gill's experience the writing is, at times, surprisingly inept… several other characters are so sketchily written that they barely exist. The play looks a treat however in Richard Hudson's elegant design, and the acting is often excellent. Francesca Annis captures a bossy middle-class mother determined to keep all unpleasantness at bay, while Barbara Flynn is superbly compelling as her friend… Gwilym Lee powerfully captures both the political idealism and the grief of the bereaved young civil servant and Josh O'Connor is touching as the reticent soldier who finds it almost impossible to communicate the horror he has seen… Nevertheless, with a running time of more than three hours Versailles often proves an arduous slog of an evening.
…Gill's play runs for three hours, and I loved every minute of it… What I admire about Gill's play is that it backs up its arguments with forensic detail… Occasionally Gill's desire to link past and present seems too palpable as when Leonard foresees the possible emergence of a "Mohammedan Cromwell" or anachronistically talks of "shagging". But this is a vital, necessary play, and Gill's own production contains impeccable performances from Gwilym Lee as the Keynesian Leonard, Tom Hughes as his dead lover and Francesca Annis, Barbara Flynn and Adrian Lukis as embodiments of Kentish rural conservatism. If for nothing else, I would treasure Gill's play for its classic apercu that "in English politics, the centre is always to the right".
…there won't be anything more demandingly dense than Peter Gill's Versailles. Focusing on the conflict's aftermath, it is packed with meticulous research that sometimes makes it resemble the more ponderous sort of history lesson… As a piece about loss Versailles is convincing… Gill directs sensitively, and there are polished performances from Francesca Annis as Leonard's laconic mother, Tamla Kari as his forward-thinking sister, Adrian Lukis as their cultured neighbour, and Tom Hughes as Gerald. At three hours (with two intervals) this is meaty fare. Yet it takes too long to advance beyond dry exposition… The play's range and polemical ambition are admirable… But only in the final third does it seem intimately human, and by then we've had to endure a lot of turgid debate.
…ambitious and thoughtful new play, premiered now in the author's own superbly cast production at the Donmar… 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… that come over as a bit too conveniently wise-before-the-event… 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… Josh O'Connor is deeply touching as Hugh… Versailles is too overt in its designs on us and makes for a long evening but it rewards persistence.