“Old-fashioned” is most often a derogatory term, but it can also mean traditionally well-crafted. That’s definitely the case with “Versailles,” Peter Gill’s highly articulate, leisurely yet absorbing new play about the English, class and politics. Set in 1919, it uses that era’s three-act construction and scale (a cast of 13) and adds arguments tonally akin to Bernard Shaw. Unlike Shaw, however, it has an emotional center. Gill’s own immaculate, undeniably slow-burn production ultimately elicits a glow of satisfaction akin to the pleasure of devouring a complete box-set TV drama.
Like “Downton Abbey” but with a brain and considerably more force and focus, “Versailles” replaces soap with serious concerns. The first and third acts take place in the drawing room belonging to the upper-middle class Rawlinson family in the aftermath of World War One. Francesca Annis is matriarch Edith, whose son Leonard (Gwilym Lee) we see in the middle act working as part of the British team at Versailles negotiating the detailed terms of the peace treaty with Germany.
Instead of anachronistic, punchy dialogue, Gill, possessor of the finest ear in British theater, writes trenchant, beautifully authentic period dialogue for this supremely talkative play. Via his near flawless cast, he illuminates the demeanor and concerns of a diverse group of beautifully delineated characters all individually struggling to come to terms with what the war meant and, specifically, what the peace will bring.
A generational divide is opening up with the younger characters chafing against the status quo. Edith’s daughter (Tamla Kari) is restless — “Don’t be so bright, Mabel, it’s really unattractive,” chides Edith, her mother — while her friend Constance (a composed Helen Bradbury) is forthright while calmly embodying the role of the new woman. Meanwhile, family friend Marjorie Chater (gloriously unabashed Barbara Flynn), who lost her son Gerald in the war, is on hand as a symbol of English intransigence in the face of change.
Between the two is Geoffrey Ainsworth. Winningly played by Adrian Lukis, he initially appears to be an unthinkingly Conservative businessman, yet he proves intelligent enough to question everyone’s motives and their political position while cunningly pursuing a path of enlightened self-interest.
It’s the last of those which concerns Leonard. The middle act, the least multi-faceted of the three, sees him sharp and far-sighted enough to predict the havoc that will be wreaked if the terms negotiated in bitterness emasculate Germany. But in the outer acts he leads the charge at home too, advocating not the prevailing culture of self-righteous blame and lack of responsibility but an opportunity for rigorous self-examination on the part of all the war’s survivors.
His viewpoint is fired up by Gill’s most audacious device, that of the ghost of Gerald who, it becomes clear, was secretly Leonard’s lover. Once again, however, Gill plays an unexpected card, because although the men’s connection across time produces heartstopping moments of loss, the writing is never merely sentimental. Gerald continually upbraids Leonard, advancing further arguments exposing the lack of morality behind a purely economic viewpoint — arguments that hurl the play’s concerns knowingly into the present.
Indeed, Leonard’s self-knowledge is so complete that his character could become undramatic. But Lee is so exhilaratingly up to speed with his ideas that his Leonard becomes completely commanding, so much so that Tom Hughes’ sullen, arrogant Gerald sometimes struggles to keep pace with him.
Yet for all the fierce intelligence of the debates, it’s the silences that are most eloquent. Josh O’Connor is deeply touching in the tiny, unexpected reveal of the pain beneath returning soldier Hugh’s seeming indifference to the war he went through, and Gerald’s father’s sudden breakdown is shockingly well-handled by Christopher Godwin.
“Not a caricature at all,” says Geoffrey at one point. He’s speaking of an offstage character but the line applies to everyone on stage. With its daringly over-extended debates that militate against instant gratification, “Versailles” is scarcely the most commercial of prospects. But audiences willing to concentrate are rewarded by the impact of a writer/director trusting his actors to deliver a drama of rare eloquence.