Saturday 20th February 2016, matinée
It’s been open for less than three years, but the Park Theatre is rapidly taking centre stage as a place for controversial and thought-provoking theatre. So it seems a natural home for the world premier of the latest play from one of the co-authors of ‘Yes Minister’, Jonathan Lynn, ‘The Patriotic Traitor’. Although set in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems appropriately topical, being a portrayal of the early life of De Gaulle, the man who said ‘Non’ to the UK entering the European common market.
The play is ostensibly about the relationship between two great figures of history – Marshall Phillipe Petain, and General Charles De Gaulle. They started out as mentor and protegé, in many ways like-minded men who rebelled against the old guard, and ended up on opposite sides when France was invaded by the Nazis, with Petain head of the nazi-collaborating Vichy government and De Gaulle an enemy of France, gathering together a rebel army in exile. The play begins with De Gaulle back in power, and Petain on trial on charges of treason.
Ultimately, though, this is a fascinating exploration of the bigger picture, of leadership and nationhood, with each man’s actions seen through the perspective of France, and what it means to ‘save’ a Nation from defeat or obliteration. Petain was a pragmatist, trying to preserve France’s physical borders by willingly seeking an ‘armistice’ with the Germans in return for implementing their orders in France’s name. He argues that he saved Paris from being destroyed. De Gaulle, though, is interested in the ‘idea’ of France (yes, the nation as notion), the result of the hopes and beliefs of all its inhabitants. For him, Petain destroyed France by lending his reputation as a hero of the First World War to an immoral cause. Petain, on the other hand, thought he was sacrificing himself for his country, not the other way round.
As we follow their journey together, and listen to their arguments, Lynn brings out the absurdities that are inherent in war and politics, but this is not satire. The humour brings warmth and humanity to a story that is deadly serious and the wordplay reflects the deepest of human dilemmas. The characters too are fully rounded – there are no ‘straw men’ here and no twenty-twenty hindsight. We experience the agony of their decisions and doubts in real time.
Tom Conti as Petain is a very clever casting choice. He has natural charm, and a strangely laid-back quality, at odds with his historical reputation as an enemy of France. Conti achieves the seemingly impossible task of bringing gravitas together with mischievous humour, combining the irascible impatience of an old soldier with the occasional glimpse of a lost soul who cannot quite believe that his grand gesture was not wanted after all. Laurence Fox is captivating in a different way. His De Gaulle is absolutely focussed on his idealistic goals, and never stops from the moment he steps onto the stage. It is fascinating to watch him create himself (and he does refer to himself in the third person ‘Not De Gaulle….De Gaulle‘) and to see how his unlikable eccentricities and youthful arrogance begin to form around a vision of leadership with utter conviction. A small supporting cast (Niall Ashdown, James Chalmers, Ruth Gibson and Tom Mannion) complete the drama, effortlessly portraying a large cast of characters, and under Jonathan Lynn’s assured direction of his own work, we get a production which is always intimate, but skillfully hints at the seismic events surrounding the action. A giant backdrop of a map of Western Europe (just for those of us not familiar with the Maginot line), also helps in a no-nonsense way and never lets us forget what is at stake.
At the risk of repeating ourselves, this is another triumph for the Park Theatre. The run is already sold-out and deservedly so, with writing, acting and direction of such high quality. Sadly it seems to be all too rarely that we find ourselves entertained and informed in equal measure, and leaving the theatre with genuinely furrowed brows as we unpick what we have seen and think again about the well-worn territory of the second world war. To Jonathan Lynn we say ‘Merci’, ‘Encore’ and ‘Plus, s’il vous plait’!