Thursday, 25 February 2016

Review The Patriotic Traitor

The Patriotic Traitor
by Jonathan Lynn

Men Of Destiny

How to define the tormented character of wartime France? Jonathan Lynn, best known for co-writing goverment sitcom Yes Minister, uses two real life French soldier politicians, judged differently by history, to draw together many elements in his ambitious play The Patriotic Traitor.

Marshal Pétain  (Tom Conti), a farmer's son from the Pas-De-Calais, became a First World War hero. However he later led the French Empire's very own "Parexit" from the Allied to the Nazi cause, accepting the premiership of the now notorious collaborationist anti-semitic government headquartered in the spa town Vichy.

General De Gaulle (Laurence Fox) was a proud nationalist, monarchist, Jesuit intellectual and writer, initially regarding the older man as his technical military mentor

But after fleeing to London, De Gaulle and the Free French disowned the "legal" French government. Following Allied victory and Pétain's post war conviction for treason, the younger man held the power over Marshal Pétain's life or death in his hands.   

Directed by Lynn himself, the set is deceptively simple, but it is also exquisitely designed by Georgia Lowe with pastels reminiscent of Saint Exupéry's Le Petit Prince illustrations or even the gray wash of Jean and Cécile De Brunhoff's benevolent dictator, Babar.

The play begins as Pétain, a womanising, tough Celt, whose geniality hides a streak of ruthless expediency, in Conti's incarnation, backed by a map of France and surrounding countries, awaits the verdict of his trial and it is seemingly structured as a series of his flashbacks told to a priest.

The apprentice simplicities of the first act fuse into a far more complex second act. As Pétain's viewpoint retreats, De Gaulle's sense of his destiny and his literary image of himself washes over the play

Finally a compliant Pétain, whose life De Gaulle saves in a manner modelled on Napoleon's exile, even accepts his former subordinate giving him the words to describe his punishment.

The play, in TLT's humble opinion, belongs to De Gaulle, allowing Fox to excel, even when talking, as became De Gaulle's wont, in the third person. And it is De Gaulle's particular sensibility, writerly imagination and politics which grow to dominate the play.

TLT and her petite bagnole were struck by echos of several parallel European histories and also some graceful tableaux in the course of the action. As if an artist had recorded events with every nuance in an upmarket populist political bande-dessinée before the age of the flash bulb press photographer.

Charting the lives of the two men and their relationship to France, Lynn chooses a dramatically difficult literary and historical path shaded with pastiche. For, despite the seriousness of the subject, there's a skein of humour strained across the continuum of events. 

At the same time, Lynn could have paced  his own work more effectively to tap more fully the dramatic potential of the intricate structure and ritualistic power exchange. 

There is able, precise support from Niall Ashdown, James Chalmers, Tom Mannion with Ruth Gibson as De Gaulle's wife, Calais-born Yvonne, elegant daughter of a biscuit maker and mother of his three children. Nonetheless, mixed feelings remain over this production's strategy and its mapping of the handover of power. 

A slow burner, it eventually rewards an attentive audience in the second act, having woven its coolly intricate web with gunpowder flashes of emotion. But, especially in the first act, this feels like a radio play with Andrea J Cox's sound effects or a piece preparing for a TV drama series or movie, so it's an amber light from TLT.

PS As left wing French intellectuals manqué with a taste for the existential ;), it tickled TLT and her mechanical filly that this production's De Gaulle, five years before his own birth, should watch out for his own uncle  - the would-be assassin of the French president in 1973 movie The Day Of The Jackal ... ;)

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