73 days after Notre Dame was ravaged by fire, Cyril Gely’s Diplomacy - depicting Paris’ near-obliteration by Adolf Hitler - opens at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli.
John Bell and John Gaden in DIPLOMACY at Ensemble Theatre, 2018. Photo credit: Prudence Upton.
John Bell’s production of Diplomacy, translated into English by Julie Rose, opened at the Ensemble Theatre last Wednesday night, as if the Francophiles of the north shore haven’t been through enough this year.
Protagonists maintain almost an hour-long duologue in an imagined interaction between the diplomat credited with ‘la libération de Paris’, Raoul Nordling (John Gaden), and Dietrich von Choltitz (John Bell), the General whom Adolf Hitler instructed to destroy all landmarks and major structures in Paris, along with millions of the city’s inhabitants.
While we know how the story ends, Nordling’s final success in convincing the General to spare Paris is almost a shock considering how hopeless he seems initially.
The action begins with von Choltitz striding from desk to filing cabinet to telephone, orchestrating the city’s destruction. The areas to which he refers in telephone conversations, as well as in discussions with his engineering officer (James Lugton) and trusted companion Frau Myer (Genevieve Lemon), hover behind him on an enormous map of Paris, from which we can appreciate the sheer scale of the intended damage.
When Nordling appears in von Choltitz’ hotel room, looking sheepish and armed with only a charming story after accessing a secret entrance, the General for some reason does not raise the alarm and allows him to remain. Smartly dressed but of smaller stature than von Choltitz, wide-eyed, unarmed and desperately improvising, it would seem Nordling is no match for the resolute General.
Nordling pleads Paris’ case persistently, and gains von Choltitz’ trust by saving him from an asthma attack. Nordling ultimately discovers that the General’s motivations for carrying out Hitler’s orders do not stem from allegiance to the Nazis . Should General von Choltitz not destroy Paris, his family will be killed. At this point, Nordling becomes impressive and convincing, crafting a plan for the General that can save both his family, and Paris.
Gaden graduated physically from cowering, almost comical intruder, to compassionate ally, to persuasive diplomat. At times, the dialogue itself lost momentum, on which occasions Gaden’s expressiveness and engaged physicality maintained the required tension.
Bell was, throughout the entire performance, the picture of discipline militaire, an embodiment of the doomed German mood, rather than a complex, multi-dimensional character. As von Choltitz surrendered Paris, it would have made sense for us to be experiencing the initial vulnerability of Gaden in Bell’s demeanour.
The turbulence of occupied Paris was confected superbly by sound designer Nate Edmondson, particularly in the blasts of the last scene, where von Choltitz considers the challenges that lie ahead.
James Lugton, who played the teenage engineering officer, and Genevieve Lemon, who appeared on two or three occasions as ‘Frau Myer’, were convincing in their fleeting roles, although their presence seemed more a device to conjure the epoch rather than advance the plot. More regular interference may have enriched the suspense.
This lightly fictionalised moment in history sees an overall engaged portrayal at The Ensemble Theatre. John Gaden is a thrill to watch.
3 ½ stars: ★★★☆
By Cyril Gély
Translated and adapted by Julie Rose
Director: John Bell
Assistant Director: Anna Volska
Set Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Costume Designer: Genevieve Graham
Lighting Designer: Matt Cox
Composer and Sound Designer: Nate Edmondson
Cast: John Bell, John Gaden, Genevieve Lemon, James Lugton and Joseph Raggatt
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli
21 June - 14 July 2019