Park Theatre, London – until 19 March 2016
BANG THE DRUM FOR THIS ONE: AN INTIMATE EPIC OF WAR AND FRIENDSHIP
This premiere for the Park is a cracker: a serious, grownup, constantly entertaining light on history with fine-drawn characters, and some acidly sharp philosophical resonances for today’s troubled Europe and our divided government. Jonathan Lynn wrote and directs: as co-author of the Yes Minister series and the recent (less impressive and even more cynical) stage play we know he has a sharp political eye. But this one is richer and more acutely perceptive than mere satire.
It deals with the relationship between Charles de Gaulle and his old friend and mentor Philippe Petain, Marechal of France, national hero, victor of Verdun in the first war but collaborator-Premier in the Vichy government during the second. When, of course, de Gaulle was the leader of the Free French resistance.
The play is framed with Pétain, 89 years old, in a cell in 1945 awaiting trial for treason after the Liberation. It flashes back to the eve of World War 1 and the first meeting between the peppery, dry-witted senior officer and the gangling, awkwardly scholarly, intellectually arrogant and humourless cadet De Gaulle. It takes them in sparring friendship through that war’s attrition, the uneasy 1930’s, and Pétain’s rise to an aged and disastrous political career as head of the puppet government, signing at one point a death warrant on the Resistance leader who was once almost a son to him.
I can’t recommend it strongly enough to newer generations, not least in a time when questions of sovereignty, patriotic feeling and the very nature of nationhood underpin less bloody but equally emotional political divisions in our own land. Pétain, the pragmatist who reckons they could rub along with the Germans and save more deaths, at one point says impatiently that “For de Gaulle France is a dream. A romance. For me it is the land, the cheese, the people”. De Gaulle just says “I am France. If I want to know what France thinks, I ask myself”. And, austerely impatient of those slow to join the Resistance, “What can you expect from a nation which elevates food ,wine and fashion to national preoccupations?”. Nor is he impressed by the deals offered by “perfidious Albion” and its Churchill who is every bit as stubborn and arrogant as he is himself.
The key performances are superb – amid a versatile ensemble giving us soldiers, collaborators, Nazis and a nicely pompous Lord Halifax (very Yes Minister, that bit). But it hangs on the leads: Tom Conti, with a neat white moustache, is Pétain: instantly likeable, clubbable, dryly humorous, lecherous, stubbornly commonsense, amused by the earnest de Gaulle. Who is Laurence Fox, equally fabulous casting in the role, all Thucydides and poetry-books and arrogant social ineptitude and irritable strategic brilliance. They men are nicely defined by their broad leather military belts: Fox’s always straight as a die on his rigid up-and-down frame, Conti’s always at a bit of an angle, with comfortable bulges above and below.
Sometimes it is blisteringly funny: a scene on the eve of a WW1 battle has them growing drunk together, jerkily discussing the concept of the Nietzschean Superman until the older man grows bored and lurches off to the whore he’s ordered. Sometimes it lets us see the edges of horror, as the wily old pragmatist signs off the “repatriation of political dissidents” to Germany – meaning, Jews. Sometimes there is real pain in the mutual disillusion of the friends. Always it is intelligent, well-researched but imaginative about human struggles and choices. It’s sparely set, as between sandbagged wings a great map of France reminds us how fatally the Maginot Line stopped at the “friendly” Belgian border . But Andrea J Cox’s vivid soundscape gives us bombardments, bands, bugles, and a moment of the Horst-Wessellied. And so the two men circle one another, magnets both drawn and repelled, as France endures her darkest and proudest hours.
It’s terrific. Honour to the Park, but this deserves a rapid transfer. Hope so. A commercial theatre ecology – which after all sold Ben Brown’s “Three Days in May” in the big Trafalgar Studios to illustrate our own end of the 1940 dilemma – should welcome it in.
box office 020 870 6876 http://www.parktheatre.co.uk to 19 march