Jonathan Lynn’s career as a writer and director is rich in its variety but for many he is best known for being co-author of two television series that changed the public’s perception of government – Yes Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister.
Now he has cast his eye across the channel to France to bring to the stage an extraordinary story of friendship, war and its consequences which, unless you’re an ardent historian, you may know nothing about.
It would be a tragedy if the subject matter discouraged anyone from seeing The Patriotic Traitor, which opened this week at London’s Park Theatre because this is intelligently written, bold, original drama of the highest quality about two giants of the 20th century.
Furthermore, what can politicians and ourselves, learn from their ideological conflict? Are governments representing the wishes of their people or responsible for the future security and safety of a country, no matter how idealised that is?
The British have always had strong emotions about France’s behaviour during World War II. Many saw their capitulation as weakness, allowing Hitler a possible gateway to Britain. Others empathised with the terrible decisions that had to be made. Was it possible to fight on, under overwhelming odds, when the outcome would be devastation?
Tom Conti plays The Lion of Verdun, Phillipe Pétain, who, as leader of the Vichy Government in war-torn France, was forced into signing an armistice with Hitler to save his crippled country, and particularly Paris, from ruin.
The action, seen as a gross betrayal by many, put him at odds with his former student, General Charles De Gaulle.
De Gaulle was probably called a lot of things in his life but here he is portrayed as humourless, intellectually brilliant, arrogant, pompous and self-important. A superb strategist he applied his intelligence to saving a nation and had little time for the people who lived in it.
It was inevitable that the old war horse and the young upstart, who had diametrically opposing views on warfare, would clash. The result was a show-trial which saw Marshal Pétain accused of “an abominable breach of trust”.
Lynn’s story, which he admits, enjoys a bit of journalistic licence, is engrossing. I went into the Park200 shamefully knowing little about the men or their place in history, and emerged wanting to know more.
Casting for The Patriotic Traitor is flawless and the dynamic between the mature Conti, whose accent seems to be two parts Yorkshire and one part Scots, and the tall, lean Laurence Fox as an earnest De Gaulle, is perfect.
Conti’s easy-going charm sees him slip effortlessly into the uniform of an elder statesman and soldier, a man who caroused with women, drank with his men and rose through the ranks. A real soldiers’ soldier and man of the people.
He fought to a set of principles which I offer no judgement on. A reactive officer, and not proactive, never willing to take the battle to his enemy or stupidly fight against insurmountable odds. Pragmatic, with a lifetime’s experience, he was acclaimed as a hero for his valour in WWI.
Fox is mesmerising as De Gaulle, a man utterly convinced of his destiny, who is passionate and forthright, but, it has to be said, a prig.
The story takes us through both World Wars but I’m guessing two scenes will stand out for most audiences. The first sees Pétain and De Gaulle getting hopelessly drunk on a bottle of cognac. Both actors go totally overboard, no doubt encouraged by their director Lynn, and its hysterically funny. They’re not great turns as drunks but they’re very funny to watch.
It’s later followed by De Gaulle’s first date with the woman who was to become his wife, Yvonne (Ruth Gibson). Fox captures the sheer terror of a man totally unused to the concept of an opposite sex. The soldier’s desperation as he struggles to make some sort of conversation is wonderfully excruciating to watch. You can’t help but feel a fleeting modicum of sympathy for him.
Surrounding the two men are superb cameos from a supporting cast of Niall Ashdown, James Chalmers and Tom Mannion who play key figures from two wars, with the entire drama played against a backdrop of a giant battlefield map of France in the First World War.
A fascinating character study of two great leaders from either side of a country’s political divide.
The Patriotic Traitor runs at Park Theatre until March 19.
The Patriotic Traitor
Across a political and ideological divide. Jonathan Lynn’s engrossing wartime drama, The Patriotic Traitor, is intelligently written, fascinating, thought-provoking and superbly acted.