DIPLOMACY, Ensemble Theatre, 29 March-28 April 2018. Season SOLD OUT – returning in 2019 including regional tour. Photography by Prudence Upton
In 1944 the war was going badly for Germany and Hitler was apparently going mad back in Berlin. His orders to his governor of Paris, General Dietrich von Choltitz (John Bell) were to destroy the city rather than allow the advancing Allies to capture it. In Cyril Gély’s play just how this is going to be accomplished is described in detail by von Choltitz’s engineer (James Lugton).
It all sounds chillingly plausible, not least because his account of how the Seine’s bridges and the city’s landmark buildings have been loaded with explosives, takes place on a clever set by Michael Scott Mitchell which is, floor and walls, a beautiful old map of Paris.
Enter the Swedish consul Raoul Nordling (John Gaden) on a mission to persuade the governor to spare the city. For reasons that need to be seen to fully appreciate, von Choltitz is surprised to have a visitor in his office and the initial encounter isn’t promising. But the Gaden charm is irresistible (good casting) and the General finds himself, albeit with grumpy reluctance, engaging with the diplomat in an amiable philosophical wrangle over the Nazis’ plan.
Gély has some fun with the exchanges between the two men. Nordling, although Swedish by nationality, was Parisian by birth and history documents his frequent efforts, diplomatic and actual, to assist the French during the war. The conversations between him and the General, however, are fictionalised. And in the tin-eared translation and adaptation by Julie Rose, often unlikely: hard to imagine either man, in 1944, saying “Believe me” or “Trust me” as often as they do.
John Bell directs as well as sharing most of the stage time with Gaden and therefore Anna Volska is the much-needed assistant director and between them the staging is fluent and visually satisfying. But the play is neither fluent nor satisfying, with Lugton appearing in the opening scene before vanishing for good. And the same happens to Genevieve Lemon as the General’s faithful aide de camp. It’s a perhaps lazy and rather absurd waste of superior talents. Newcomer Joseph Raggatt, as the bright-eyed, fresh-faced young soldier at least gets to stay alert backstage: occasionally popping in an out to click his heels and promise to obey fresh orders.
Quite where the drama and tension is supposed to come from is a mystery as we already know Nordling succeeds and that von Choltitz succumbs to his blandishments. And, of course, Paris and it’s bridges, Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tour and enduring romance still stands. The characterisations are off too: Gély airily hedge his bets – making von Choltitz a career military man who calmly tells Nordling he followed orders and presided over the deaths of 30,000 Jews earlier in the war; and the next moment he is a family man who is prepared to destroy Paris to save his wife and children. And Nordling is required to smile benignly throughout. Weird.
Despite its crew of luminaries – Nate Edmondson delivers a typically creative and enhancing sound design, Matt Cox’s lighting design seamlessly punctuates and moves the narrative; and Genevieve Graham’s costumes of sharp Nazi uniforms and a very civilian suit for Nordling, are excellent – the play didn’t gel on opening night. It felt under-cooked and still on the road to where it may well get to a week from now.