The Patriotic Traitor
North London's Park Theatre isn't yet 3 years old and it already has had two West End transfers, some national tours and has firmly established itself as a key player in the theatre scene. Here it presents the world premiere of a new play by Jonathan Lynn, of Yes Minster fame, who has secured two established stars, Tony winner Tom Conti and Lawrence Fox, for a production which should certainly have a life beyond Finsbury Park.
A “well-made play” it is given an un-showy staging by Lynn and is anchored by two great performances, which detail in a very human way, the tensions between these legendary figures from French history. It's old fashioned, but in a good way.
It recounts the intriguing relationship between Charles De Gaulle and the man who was for many years his mentor and champion but who later became his nemesis, Marshal Philippe Pétain. A wily and uncompromising soldier, Pétain had been hailed, after the Battle of Verdun, as the saviour of France but by the time of the Second World War he had fatally chosen pragmatism over idealism and collaborated with the Nazis to create the Vichy Government. De Gaulle of course resisted and became the great national hero. By this time they had been personally estranged and as the play begins we are in 1945 and the 89 year old Pétain is in a prison cell, attended to by a chaplain and awaiting news of his fate. He's been found guilty of treason and only his old friend De Gaulle can decide whether he will face the firing squad.
They were an unlikely pairing. Conti presents Pétain as affable, worldly and relaxed and he even gives him a Scottish burr, to set him apart from De Gaulle's snobbish hauteur. Fox presents the straight-backed General as driven and self-absorbed and possessing a gauche humourlessness that today would probably have him diagnosed as having mild Asperger's. De Gaulle's fierce intellect and confidence in his own superiority is only challenged however in his dealings with women, who are an undiscovered country. It doesn't help that he refers to himself in the third person, even at the breakfast table. The courtship scene with his wife Yvonne (a confident Ruth Gibson) presents more horrors for him than any battleground and in a few key scenes Fox beautifully illuminates De Gaulle's softer, family, side.
Lynn excels at humanising what could just be a dry history lesson but a witty scene where the two friends get slowly drunk while De Gaulle explains Nietzsche's philosophy, neatly sums up the play's shortcoming. The need for wit and accessibility trumps elaboration of arguments and key scenes as the two lock horns over conflicting ideas of nationhood, for example, get truncated and reduced to pithy aphorisms. Some might take issue too with even presenting Pétain as a twinkly-eyed old fox, but then again was he the only demon when the Armistice plebiscite received such a huge public support?
Lynn has to be commended though for even taking on such a slab of history, one which is probably not very familiar to a younger Anglo audience and for fashioning a compelling piece of theatre out of it. His two actors couldn't be bettered and through them you are enlightened without realising it.
Georgia Lowe's design solutions are nimble apart from a huge and very welcome backcloth map of wartime France which helps keep it all clear. Andrea J Cox's excellent sound design also greatly augments the action.