One person’s patriot is someone else’s traitor, and it’s ultimately circumstance, time and history that decides whose view wins. That’s the gist of Jonathan Lynn’s patchily enjoyable production of his thoughtful new play.
Spanning 1913 to 1945, Lynn charts the friendship-turned-enmity between Philippe Pétain – the French general and hero of Verdun, who would go on to sign the infamous armistice with Nazi Germany – and Charles de Gaulle, the soldier who would rescue France and have Pétain tried for treason.
Using this trial as a storytelling frame for flashbacks, Lynn presents the pair as different but complementary: both stubborn and assured of their own greatness. Pétain’s insistence on the use of artillery and defensive strategy made him a legend after World War I, but his self-belief would be his undoing. His legacy would be ‘collaborator’.
As Pétain, a crumpled Tom Conti twinkles with familiar charm in the comic scenes, but is less assured when it comes to portraying the general’s ruthlessness in war. And, at times, there’s a hesitancy to his performance that goes beyond his character’s advanced age at the start of the play.
Conti isn’t helped by the continental drift of Lynn’s direction, with a welter of too-brief scenes sloping into each other without much momentum. It also doesn’t help that – for much of the first half – the play seems unsure about whether it’s serious drama or comic satire. There’s a drunk scene that, while fun, goes on for a bafflingly long time.
This unsteady wavering initially infects the Spock-like humourlessness of Laurence Fox’s de Gaulle. He’s a buffoonish parody who slides suddenly into profound speeches. But, as the production settles down, he becomes its greatest asset, colouring de Gaulle’s faith in the idea of France – not necessarily its people – in compelling shades.
This production has raggedy edges, but from Britain’s exploitation of displaced French citizens during World War II, to de Gaulle’s ideological clash with Pétain – whose professed allegiance, here, is to the preservation of France as country not national myth – it tells an engrossing story.