It’s easy to forget that behind every big political decision, there’s a human being (well… usually). History informs us that Marshal Philippe Pétain was a WW1 hero who later betrayed his country by signing the armistice with Nazi Germany in 1940. After the war, at the age of 89, he was tried for treason and exiled by General Charles de Gaulle.
Those are the cold, hard facts. The Patriotic Traitor by Jonathan Lynn aims to uncover the story behind the historical accounts, and delves into the long and close friendship between De Gaulle and Pétain, and the personal and political differences that led them to their respective places in history.
I must admit, my knowledge of French war history is a little shaky, but fortunately the play takes us through it step by step in a faithful and easy to follow history lesson; there’s even a huge map of Europe on the back wall for us to refer to and locate the place names that come up in the script. The only downside of this focus on historical accuracy is that the second half of the play feels at times a little slow, as we go through all the ins and outs of each decision, without much of the humour that makes the first act fly (particular highlights include a drunken conversation about Nietzsche and De Gaulle’s clumsy attempt at romancing his wife, played by an excellent Ruth Gibson).
Tom Conti is an increasingly frail and confused Pétain, in a sympathetic portrayal of a man who’s been condemned by history as nothing more than a Nazi collaborator. Yet this kind-hearted father figure isn’t afraid to speak his mind or exercise his authority when necessary, and truly views himself as the saviour of France (we know this because he says it, several times). But while much of the story is presented from Pétain’s point of view, the play really belongs to Laurence Fox as Charles de Gaulle, a brilliant man but mediocre soldier, who freely admits that he has no sense of humour, and ultimately claims his position of power by sheer force of will. Unlike Pétain, his arrogance isn’t bluster but absolute belief in his own superiority, and Fox’s military bearing and deadpan expression rarely falter, even when things are going well. (One memorable exception to this is during a meeting with Lord Halifax, when the Brit’s insistence on serving tea with milk and sugar draws a wonderful look of mystified panic from the Frenchman to his aide.)
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An author’s note in the text requests that scene changes don’t interrupt the flow of the play – which is probably a good thing, because there are a lot of them. As it is, with furniture that’s actually built into Georgia Lowe’s set ready to be whisked in and out of position by the small but versatile cast, changes are slick and well choreographed; the only constant is the bed in Pétain’s prison cell, reminding us of the context in which the events are taking place. Lighting is also used effectively by Mark Howland to indicate shifts in time and place.
The Patriotic Traitor is a historical drama, but one that still feels very relevant in today’s uncertain climate. Jonathan Lynn has produced a fascinating, entertaining and thought-provoking account of one of the 21st century’s most momentous political decisions, and the little known human story behind it. Highly recommended.
Review by Liz Dyer
The Patriotic Traitor
by Jonathan Lynn
Until 19 March 2016