Left – John Bell and John Gaden. Cover – John Bell and John Gaden. Photos – Prudence Upton.
They say that some stories from history are so astonishing that “you couldn’t make this up if you tried”. Well, perhaps not, but this lightly fictionalised portrayal of extraordinary true events from the Second World War makes for a totally engrossing night of theatre, especially when presented by two of our greatest stage actors of this or any other generation.
In the middle of the night in late August 1944, German army general and military governor of Nazi-occupied Paris, Deitrich von Choltitz (John Bell) is preparing for the implacable arrival of enemy forces. From his hotel suite headquarters he is planning to carry out the latest in a string of Hitler’s orders which even he, loyal third-generation career-military, privately recognises as the desperation of a madman facing defeat. General von Choltitz has been ordered not only to never surrender, but in the event of an imminent Allied liberation of Paris being unstoppable – which it clearly will be – to wipe the ancient city off the face of the earth.
Quite literally, in fact, as we learn in a chilling early scene in which an engineering officer (James Lugton) dispassionately and very technically outlines to von Choltitz how Paris has been methodically mined, ready to be blown up and flooded in the course of about half an hour, destroying all national monuments, and likely taking some two million civilians with them. The only thing now standing between the City of Light and it being extinguished forever is whether this German general picks up his phone and gives the order.
Equivalences to the Allied bombings of Hamburg and mutual destruction of other cities through military action are raised as the play progresses. However, nothing quite shakes the sheer breathtaking horror of such an atrocity being quite so matter-of-factly planned, without any tactical value whatsoever. Although the even greater horror of the Holocaust is only mentioned in passing, it is easy to draw a parallel to the similar logistical considerations that went into implementing such unfathomable crimes against humanity.
Ostensibly content with his role in carrying out these mad orders, General von Choltitz goes about studiously dotting his administrative i’s and crossing his military t’s when he finds himself confronted by an unexpected visitor, who has somehow circumvented the guards to miraculously appear in his office. This urbane, unassuming figure is the Swedish Consul General in Paris, Raoul Nordling (John Gaden), a diplomat with whom von Choltitz has had dealings before. The dapper and genial fellow proceeds to rapidly unnerve the general, who would nominally hold all the power in this situation. Nordling is not only seeming able to enter the most secure German location in Paris at will, but also blithely displays foreknowledge of their top-secret plans.
What follows, with many twists and turns, is an epic conversation in which Nordling seeks to convince, cajole, beg, shame, induce and otherwise twist the arm of von Choltitz to not go through with the planned destruction of Paris. This negotiation spans many topics from military ethics to family and personal history, the rules of engagement and the moral responsibility of soldiers in a chain of command. There are personal revelations and reversals, as the general is certain the diplomat must be working as a spy, who in return seeks to unravel why this seemingly rational military man feels he cannot disobey his orders. Orders which, it is progressively revealed, he does not as impassively endorse as his initial posturing suggests.
For a play with such dire subject matter, it is surprisingly light and even funny at times, in the nimble charm of its dialogue and the battle of wits between such sharply-drawn characters. There is a faint underlying absurdity, ever-present, as these two impeccably dressed and scrupulously well-mannered “gentlemen” calmly discuss the fate of two million souls and centuries of history, as though it were a lively philosophical debate rather than a life-or-death situation. It may seem all very civilised on the surface, but with stakes this high, they are actually both taking this very seriously indeed.
Although featuring some brief performances from the very capable supporting cast, Diplomacy is fundamentally a two-hander play, essentially one long conversation acted out in real-time over a single act. This kind of mammoth duologue requires actors of a high calibre to pull off, and you could scarcely do better than with old Shakespearean sparring partners John Gaden and John Bell, the latter doubling as the production’s director.
As this is the return season of a now touring production which is already an established smash-hit, it seems almost redundant to sing the show’s praises. Cyril Gély’s script is an engrossing choice of material for such fine actors to showcase their prowess, making for delicious gravy on top of an already delectable feast.
John Gaden is at his impishly charming best in the role of Nordling, his unassuming presence scarcely masking the twinkle of overconfidence in the eye of this skilled manipulator, a character almost too smart to play it dumb, even when the situation calls for it.
At times faintly needling, Nordling’s relentless conversational pursuit of von Choltitz makes him come across as almost a really classy version of Columbo, right down to having a “just one more thing” line. Gaden’s performance as the diplomant may not be overtly comedic, but he is certainly “the funny one” compared to Bell’s ramrod-stiff military straight-man. Nordling’s dialogue is peppered with delicious witticisms enhanced by such droll delivery.
John Bell delivers a towering performance as the stern, implacable general, whose layers gradually peel away over the course of the play. Bell exquisitely paints a portrait of a man who, although far from sympathetic, has a complex inner morality which, on the one hand, has an alarming capacity for rationalising obscene deeds in the name of duty, yet eventually gets to the point of revealing himself to be no true believer of Hitler nor any passionate adherent to Nazism.
Perhaps most challenging of all is Bell’s ability to find the humanity in his portrayal of a man who is disgusted by the prospect of liquidating Jews or destroying Paris, but not, it seems, due to the intrinsic barbarism of such acts, but rather their lack of rational military efficacy. His disgust with Hitler and Nazi politics seems less out of an ideological opposition, than the fact that they had, by this point, self-evidently ensured Germany’s inevitable defeat.
For anyone who considers “talky” plays tedious, this terrific and intimate production should serve as the perfect antidote. Its brilliant performances and captivating subject matter are sure to thrill all but the shortest of attention spans. Highly recommended.
by Cyril Gély
Director John Bell
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 26 June – 13 July 2019
Tickets: $43 – $80
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 | www.ensemble.com.au